Russell Worth could hear the roar of the crowd as he leaned forward and gave shove after shove to the tires on his wheelchair.
He tried not to smile. After all, he was in last place. But he smiled anyway.
“That was a lot of fun,” he later said of his sprint in the 400-meter track event of the 27th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
Since his first Wheelchair Games back in 1993, he has participated in the bowling, archery, swimming and table-tennis competitions. But nothing tops hearing the fans yell his name.
“Track is my favorite event,” he said. “I’m totally exhausted when I get done. I have to put ice on my shoulders. But I just give it the best that I can. I go all out to the best of my ability to accomplish something.”
Some might say just having the competitive desire is an accomplishment for Worth. Not because he uses a wheelchair, but because he’s 83.
One February evening more than 15 years ago, Worth was making his evening commute from his job as a building inspector in St. Louis, MO. He was nearly home when he was in an accident and thrown from his car and down an embankment in Washington, MO. He landed on his back on the frozen ground and has been paralyzed since.
Following his injury and a divorce from his wife, he moved home to Milwaukee with his son. Two years later, he was introduced to the Winter Sports Clinic, a week of games and competition in Snowmass Village, CO. In 1993 he signed up for the summer version of that event: the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held this year in Milwaukee, Worth’s hometown.
At 83, he was sure he was the oldest competitor, until he met Doris Merrill.
“They called me over and introduced me to her,” Worth said. That’s when the real competition began.
“How old are you?” Merrill asked.
“I’m 83,” Worth responded.
“Well I’m 83, too.” Merrill said.
Turns out, Merrill’s birthday is Feb. 1, and Worth’s isn’t until March 6, so she had him beat by a month and five days. But Merrill, who hails from Pennsylvania, wasn’t going to gloat about her small victory.
Merrill, who has used a wheelchair since being diagnosed with cervical myeloscopy after a swimming accident several years ago, began walking to one side before finally resorting to crutches. She then used wheelchairs on and off, before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 57. Formerly an instructor at Oklahoma A&M, Merrill went on to teach at Pennsylvania State University at Wilkes-Barre, and in the athletic department of her old high school in Nanticoke, PA.
In recent years, Merrill’s impressive victories in the Wheelchair Games have left others chasing her success. She began competing in 1999 in Puerto Rico.
Recently, in her ninth competition, Merrill continued her impressive record of returning home with medals. This year she competed in the Powerchair 200 for the first time and won the gold. She also took gold in air guns, which she admits used to be her worst event. Additionally, she earned a silver medal in the slalom and one in bowling, a ranking that stung a little.
“Except for this year, I’ve had the highest bowling average among men and women,” said Merrill, who bowls with a ramp. “I won’t talk about how bad I was this year, but I won the silver. In the past, I’ve always won the gold. Really and truly, I’m glad I got some silvers, because of people that I’ve beat in the past. I’m so happy to see them get the gold this time.”
Winning recognition for a job well done is a highlight of the Wheelchair Games, which provide a multi-event sports and rehabilitation program for military vets who use wheelchairs. The competition is promoted as the largest, annual wheelchair-sports event in the world.
“They play hard but they all share the experience of being vets,” said Dean Martell, co-chair of the games. “The competition is important, but they also look out for each other. They’re very open. There are no secrets.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America sponsor the games for veterans who have spinal cord injuries, amputations and neurological problems.
This year’s games were held recently with 15 medal events and two exhibition events that were scouted by the U.S. Paralympic Committee for potential team members. There were 513 athletes who registered this year from all over the world. They ranged in age from as young as 22 on up to Merrill and Worth’s age.
The athletes came from seven different branches of the military, including soldiers from Britain, Puerto Rico and 44 states, according to Martell. The athletes have served in as many as 10 different conflicts.
“I’m sure that makes it easier for us that we’ve all been there and done that,” said Worth, who served in the Navy from 1943-1946 and is a former building inspector. “Now we’re meeting a new challenge.”
It’s also important because the Wheelchair Games provide a great deal of physical and mental rehabilitation through sport, showing these veterans what they are still capable of, according to Martell.
“Yeah, they’re getting to see the world, but most importantly, the world is getting to see them,” she added, referring to how the games rotate cities annually. Next year they will be in Omaha, Neb. “It is very helpful for the games to travel around because it shows that these 513 athletes are certainly skilled. No doubt people who compete in the games come away with confidence in their ability to not only compete in this arena, but also in other aspects of life.”
Worth, who serves as a peer counselor in Milwaukee and actively promotes the Wheelchair Games, looks forward to competing in the event each year because it has changed his life.
“It just shed a whole new light on what you’ve got to look forward to and the goals you can reach,” said Worth. “You work harder in physical therapy and send the word out to the other guys. Just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re disabled. We have a lot of abilities.”
Merrill, who served in Naval intelligence from 1944- 1946, said her faith and family support have helped her maintain a positive attitude throughout her time with cervical myeloscopy and MS. But she credits the game for expanding her social life, which blossomed when she started teaching again.
“It has done more to build a bridge to the ‘walking world,’ as I say, because I have met so many people of all ages with all disabilities who have such positive attitudes,” Merrill said. “In all the years that I’ve participated, I haven’t met anyone who’s been negative. For all of us, that has been our strength.”
That strength is what keeps Worth going when his shoulders ache in the last stretch of his track event. “I get a lot of people at the VA who say I’m their inspiration,” he said. “I just try to keep going so I can be everybody’s inspiration.”
And it’s what keeps him coming back even when he finishes last as he recently did.
That same strength has taken Merrill across the country to compete. It’s what has allowed her to take home multiple medals each year. And it’s what allows her to understand that sometimes it’s okay when you don’t win.
by Joshua Pate