U.S. Army Veteran Robert Thomas has been playing nine ball at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games for the past 27 years.
The Desert Storm Veteran from Cleveland practices the sport every Tuesday with members from the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Buckeye Chapterat the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.
“The sport really helps to clear my mind and stretch tight muscles,” said Thomas. “I was in a diving accident in 1991 that damaged my C5-C6 vertebrae and caused me to become quadriplegic. Nine ball is great rehabilitation for me too. It motivates me to continue on,’ he explained.
Nine ball official Rodney Cullen started officiating wheelchair sports as a teenager and has provided his expertise to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games since 1997.
“You get to meet a lot of people over the years. Camaraderie is developed and everyone involved in this sport really looks forward to competing against each other,” said Cullen.
Veterans compete tournament style nine ball until they get to the semi final rounds where gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded.
According to Cullen, nine ball is one of the most popular sports during the Games.
“Nine ball is an enjoyable sport. It keeps me motivated and pushes me to continue to improve my game,” said Thomas.
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation program specialist Bill Wenninger has watched Veterans experience the therapeutic value of adaptive sports over the course of his career.
“The Games provide a tremendous opportunity for Veterans with different levels of skills and abilities to compete against each other in a variety of competitive athletic events. It’s also an excellent way for them to explore a new sport and be given a new experience they might not have access to,” said Wenninger.
Novice nine ball competitor U.S. Army Veteran Samuel “Wheels” Johnson of Portage, Michigan describes his experience playing nine ball at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games as one he’ll never forget.
“I’ve been playing nine ball practically my whole life, but to play it here amongst my peers, has been amazing. On a personal level, nine ball is very therapeutic for me. Just talking to my comrades and being able to open up about why we’re here, around a pool table, has helped me to develop some strong bonds,” said Johnson.
After being injured in a car accident, Johnson says that it’s often difficult to connect with others
“If I’m being honest, connecting with nine ball competitors has helped to keep me optimistic and upbeat. It’s also made me see how others are able to live with their impairments,” he said.
For some, playing nine ball allows them to touch base with other Veterans about how they are able to overcome every day obstacles.
“Being here and observing the sport over the years, I’ve learned that as a rehabilitation professional, I can tell them how to do something in a number of ways, but when they can see it for themselves, and see how a peer is able to manage, it makes all the difference,” said Wenninger.
This year marks the 38thanniversary for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. The Games are held each year to serve Veterans with spinal cord injuries, Multiple Sclerosis, amputations and other neurological impairments, with the goal of increasing their independence, healthy activity and to improve their quality of life.
Learn more by visiting VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events online and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @Sports4Vets.