Paralyzed but not sidelined: Wheelchair Games provide a competitive outlet for injured veterans
Robert Fecteau’s life changed forever in May of 2010. Active, athletic, and always up for a challenge, he found himself in Richmond, Va., competing in an adventure race. He tackled many obstacles that day, but one still remains – overcoming paralysis.
Fecteau suffered a freak diving accident while negotiating a mud pit obstacle just before the finish line. He fractured his cervical spine, instantly paralyzing him from the shoulders down. He was taken to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center, where he underwent emergency surgery.
“A catastrophic spinal cord injury changes everything. I was dependent upon nurses, therapists, and my family for everything, from eating to dressing to going to the bathroom,” says Fecteau.
After his surgery, Fecteau, a veteran, was transferred to the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond to begin physical therapy as an inpatient. Within 24 hours of being at the VA facility, a handful of members from the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America came to Fecteau’s bedside.
“These guys were Vietnam-era veterans who rolled into my room and said, ‘We are with Paralyzed Veterans of America and we want to help you navigate this new world,’” says Fecteau.
The PVA are big proponents of getting injured veterans back to an active lifestyle as soon as possible. Their support and encouragement helped Fecteau get through some of his most difficult days, and there were many since he received five hours of physical therapy every day for almost seven months.
“I just grabbed onto their lead and took inspiration from the active lifestyle those paralyzed veterans advocated and demonstrated,” says Fecteau. “I was big into sports before the injury so I figured, why change that aspect of my life?”
Adapting to adaptive sports
This week, Fecteau is in Louisville, Ky., for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Celebrating its 39th year, the NVWG is the world’s largest sports event for veterans who use wheelchairs. The annual Games, co-presented by the VA and PVA, attract more than 500 competitors across 19 different events. Each year also includes a designated Kids Day where the athletes interact and mentor children with physical disabilities from the local community.
Fecteau learned about the Games during his initial visit from PVA members and was determined to take part in them one day. He received medical clearance to participate in 2012 and competed in his first Games in Richmond, ironically.
“The biggest thing to overcome post-injury was finding my new normal, both physically and mentally,” says Fecteau. “Navigating life in a wheelchair was a big pill to swallow at first, but being around others who saw themselves as athletes meant a lot to me.”
“I wanted to have that same mentality of ‘challenge accepted,’ to move forward and compete, to be as active as I could instead of being depressed or focused on what I had lost.”
Louisville is the eighth consecutive Games for Fecteau and he will be competing in five events: 9-ball billiards, air rifle, bowling, table tennis, and wheelchair rugby. Billiards is his strongest event and a sport he played before the injury. He credits a good mentor who was also a paralyzed veteran for his prowess. Fecteau’s favorite event, however, is wheelchair rugby.
“It’s the only full-contact wheelchair sport and a good way to blow off some steam,” says Fecteau with a laugh. “Plus, it’s a team event.”
Players in wheelchair rugby compete in custom chairs specific for the sport. There are two types of chairs, one for offensive players and one for defensive players. The offensive chairs are designed for speed and to plow through tight spaces to score points. Defensive chairs are designed to hook and stall offensive chairs, often used by players with less function in their hands and arms.
“They look like wheelchairs you would see in Mad Max. They are fully reinforced with fenders, pickers, and spoke covers so they don’t break when delivering a heavy hit,” says Fecteau. “We are allowed to have full chair-to-chair contact which sometimes puts your opponent on the floor.”
The rugby chairs are not cheap, but fortunately for eligible veterans the VA can purchase them as adaptive sports equipment. In addition to the Games, Fecteau runs the Northern Virginia Mutiny, a wheelchair rugby team based out of Fairfax, Va. He co-captains the squad and is affectionately called the “Ginja Ninja” by teammates in a nod to his red hair. Because he was able to demonstrate that he plays on a team and is active in the sport, his defensive rugby chair was provided by the VA.
“If you want to see what the VA is doing and how they are doing it right, look at the Games and athletes they support. We are arguably some of the heaviest users of the VA system and in my case, I am absolutely being taken care of. Their support is amazing,” says Fecteau.
Support from home and work
Sergeant Fecteau transitioned out of the Army in 2007 after serving eight years as a Medical Laboratory Specialist. As a dual military family, Fecteau’s decision to enter back into civilian life was realized shortly after the birth of his first daughter, Camila.
Before his 2010 injury, he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree and weighing a return to the Army. The accident scrapped those plans but new doors soon opened, beginning with the 2013 Games in Tampa, Fla. It was there that Leidos, still known as SAIC at the time, sponsored the wheelchair rugby event.
After play wrapped up, the athletes were treated to a reception hosted by the sponsors. Fecteau struck up a conversation with Stephen Comber, a former executive with Leidos Health, and told him his story and how he was pursuing a master’s degree in healthcare business administration. Comber gave Fecteau his business card and told him he wanted to see his resume as soon as he graduated.
Fecteau remembered the interaction and followed through after earning his degree. Six weeks after graduating, Leidos hired him as a Healthcare Clinical Business Analyst, a role that allows him to proudly support the mission of the Department of Veteran Affairs and the men and women they serve.
“Between Leidos, PVA and their Operation PAVE [Paving Access for Veterans Employment], it all culminated in obtaining a career that has helped me realize a full recovery, support my family, and continue my contribution to society,” says Fecteau. “Those are all things you look to regain from the first day after injury.”
As they have in previous years, Fecteau’s wife and two daughters will be in Louisville to cheer him on this week. The Games help them almost as much as they help him.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for my wife and kids to be around other family members and caregivers as they too have experienced a lot of changes in their lives given my injury. Being able to share stories and confide in each other is good for everybody,” says Fecteau.
“Everyone has overcome their own obstacles to be at the Games. It is extremely inspirational and you leave with a better perspective about life, just knowing that there is a whole community out there going through the same daily struggle as you and succeeding at it.”