Sports have proved to be a lifeline for Army veteran Jacques Swafford.
Overwhelmed by depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an on-duty accident in 1991, Swafford attempted suicide several times, but survived.
“I felt like my world was just coming to an end,” said Swafford, who was injured in a Humvee wreck during Army training in California, shortly before deployment to Desert Storm. It left him in a wheelchair with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.
He had never heard of “adaptive sports” until he was hospitalized in 1999 after a suicide attempt. As part of his treatment, he was asked to choose from a variety of sports offered by the VA.
Swafford, who lives in Atlanta, started playing basketball, wheelchair racing and archery, among other sports. Now, at 57, he says he “does it all,” and is racking up medals at different sporting events across the country.
“Sports really helped me. It takes my mind off the disabilities that I have and makes me look at the glass half-full instead of half-empty,” Swafford said after archery practice at Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge.
The archery program is run by BlazeSports America, which last September became one of two Georgia organizations awarded VA grants to help more veterans like Swafford forge new relationships and improve their health and well-being.
Atlanta-based BlazeSports won two grants totaling nearly $215,000, while another Georgia group, the Adaptive Golf Association, was awarded almost $125,000.
All told, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs distributed $8 million in adaptive sports grants to 65 organizations across the country. BlazeSports is one of only three groups that received more than one grant.
Spawned by the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, this nonprofit organization introduces children and adults with disabilities to adaptive sports, such as archery, hand cycling, and track and field events. The VA grant provides nearly $129,000 for boccia and $86,000 to start a veteran soccer
The ‘most accessible’ game
Boccia is a ball game designed for people with motor disabilities. It is an event in the international Paralympic Games, and BlazeSports is boccia’s governing body in the United States.
“What’s cool and unique about boccia is that it is the single most accessible sport in the world,” said Sam Zapatka, who coordinates veterans’ programs for BlazeSports. “Anyone with any physical disability can play the sport of boccia.”
His organization will use its new VA funding to hold three weeklong boccia and soccer training camps for veterans this year. They hope to identify talented veterans who can compete in the Paralympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Officials at the Adaptive Golf Association, headquartered in Atlanta, are similarly excited about their new VA funding.
“We’re really on top of the world,” said David Windsor, director of instruction for the Adaptive Golf Association. They’re already using their grant to underwrite golf programs at eight VA hospitals in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
PGA and LPGA professionals are spending eight weeks teaching 15 wounded warriors to play. The program is free and includes customized clubs and balls. Specialized rigs enable people with limited use of their arms, and the pros are also working with VA therapists and caregivers to fine-tune each veteran’s training program.
All six sites in Florida already have their programs under way, and the other two hospitals are gearing up to start.
Although all the spots are filled, Windsor said interested veterans should not be discouraged. More camps are planned in the future, and will welcome vets regardless of age or injury.
“We want them to be able to live their life to the fullest, enjoy this game, learn it, and use it to their advantage,” Windsor said. “There are really no barriers.”
BlazeSports has specific criteria in mind for its soccer and boccia programs. For boccia, it is recruiting quadriplegic veterans; for soccer, it is seeking veterans with stroke damage or traumatic brain injuries.
Boccia and soccer camps will be held in Atlanta, and each will enroll 12 veterans. Veterans are being recruited for the soccer camps that are going to be held this month, and in April and August. The boccia camps are planned to start in April, May and July. Airfare and accommodations are included.
“Everything is 100 percent funded and provided for them,” Zapatka said. “So, all they’ve got to do is show up.”
Zapatka has worked with veterans for nearly two years, and he has become a believer in the power of adaptive sports to change lives.
“It’s been an unbelievable change − spirit, mind and body,” Zapatka said. He teaches archery, discus and hand cycling, as well as other sports, to veterans with disabilities.
When the injured veterans come together, Zapatka said, they talk more and gain more confidence.
“I think it’s really good for them to see veterans with the same disability, and seeing things that they can also do,” he said. “Because it gives them that little hope [to say], “I can do that, too.’ ”
Swafford feels the same way. While his symptoms of PTSD and depression have not disappeared, he said, they have become more manageable.
“When I’m competing or practicing, it makes me forget the things that I cannot do,” he said. “It makes me look at the things that I can do and achieve.”
Last year, Zapatka trained Swafford and others for the National Wheelchair Games in Philadelphia and the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Championships in San Mateo, California.
“He is one of our top athletes,” Zapatka said. “[Coaching] was unbelievable. It was awesome to see his hard work pay off.”
He came home from Philadelphia with gold medals in shot put, archery, discus and javelin; plus a silver medal in weightlifting. He also earned silver medals in shot put and discus in San Mateo.
Swafford is going to try out for the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field team in April during the Southeastern Regional Games in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“[Winning] gave me hope and a lot of joy,” Swafford said. “And knowing that being an athlete in high school and in the military, it brought back the competitive spirit that I had.”
Hyacinth Empinado is a freelance journalist in Athens. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia.
For more information about BlazeSports’ boccia and soccer camps, contact Sam Zapatka at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the adaptive golf program, contact David Windsor at email@example.com or call at (941) 650-5750.