More than 600 disabled veterans from all over the country are gathering in Philadelphia for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games which begin Tuesday. They will compete in 18 different events, including wheelchair baseball and tennis as well as swimming.
Eugene Tatom Sr. of Philadelphia will be one of the athletes going for the win. Tatom was 22 years old, and almost done serving in Vietnam when he stepped on a landmine, severely injuring his legs. Ever since he only can walk short distances with the help of braces and a cane.
He was an athlete in high school, and says sports saved his sanity post injury. “When I started feeling sorry for myself, I was able to go to the gym, and was able to work out and think more clearly,” he explained. “By me working out constantly, I was able to stay physically fit, and that helped me mentally, to deal with my problems.”
The games showcase both athleticism, and a shared journey, says Julia Fries, a recreational therapist at the Philadelphia VA medical center who coaches some of the participating athletes.
“There is intense competition, where you see people sort of rolling each other over and competing fiercely, but at the same time there is a wonderful camaraderie, where you might see somebody kind of bump somebody out of their wheelchair in competition, but then they will turn around, reach out their arm, and help them off the floor,” she said.
Fries says sports bring a degree of normalcy back into the lives of veterans who have sustained severe injuries. It boosts confidence and allows disabled vets to focus on all they still can do.
It’s this idea that Eugene Tatom wants to pass on to young disabled veterans — to help them learn how to live with their injuries. “I approach the guys, I know what they are going through, I try to get them involved in things in the neighborhood. I tell them to come out for the teams and all.”
Tatom is married, he has five sons and five grandchildren who cheer him on when he’s on the court or in the pool.
He says the games are all about competition, camaraderie, and making lasting connections. He’s on the receiving end of more than a bit of good-natured teasing because he is one of the older athletes. “They call me ‘old man’ — I get tired of hearing that,” he said with a chuckle.