More than 30 wounded, injured and ill servicemembers and military veterans from across the country participated in a wheelchair basketball training camp, Aug. 7-8, at Fort Belvoir's Specker Field House.
Adam Hygema from Atlanta, Georgia, works the ball down the court during a National Wheelchair Basketball Association sponsored training camp, Aug. 7 at Specker Field House.
The event, sponsored by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association; USO Metropolitan-Washington; and the Belvoir Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, aimed to provide active-duty servicemembers and veterans an opportunity to learn the basics of the game, compete against each other in a friendly environment and shoot for slots on an elite team down the road.
Two professional wheelchair basketball coaches -- Jason Nelms, a former member of the 2004 U.S. Paralympics team that competed at the London Games who currently coaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, and Jermell Pennie, a United States of America Paralympics team member and Dallas Mavericks Junior Wheelchair basketball team coach -- served as head trainers throughout the event. Belvoir DFMWR fitness coordinators, Richard Tatem and Justin Fitzgerald also assisted in keeping the clinic running smoothly.
According to Sherrice Fox, NWBA program director, the camp was designed specifically for military members who have sustained injuries in the service of the country.
"This is just for wounded servicemembers and we invited them from around the country from all the different branches to come out and participate in a summer basketball camp," she said. "We'll actually be doing four camps through the summer -- two for beginners, this one and one we did in Arlington, Texas, and one for intermediate players that we'll do in September. Then we'll invite some of the players from those camps and do a higher level camp with the goal of finding some veterans to compete in our high performance pool, which is our USA Basketball pool. Right now we have no veteran representation but we know they're out there. We know they've been playing for a while and this is a way for us to identify our league veterans and provide them an opportunity for when they get out of the service."
Fox added that the NWBA has been able to support the camps through financial assistance from the Veterans Administration and that the program is drawing consistently large turnouts among wounded servicemembers looking to play competitively and to expand their recreational activities as they continue down the healing road.
"We received a grant from the VA through U.S. Paralympics -- U.S. Olympic Committee," she said. "All but four of the 30 players out here today are veterans. It's all about getting some of these guys to come out and play in our league when they get out of the military and to allow them to keep active."
According to Steve Smutak, Fort Belvoir Warrior Transition Battalion Military Adapted Sports Program coordinator, the wheelchair basketball camp is one of the largest in the U.S.
"This is a major military sports camp that is well supported -- we got the grant last year and we got an even bigger one this year to host this," he said. "These guys here are from all over the country and we also have the four players from the team I played for at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in D.C. Since we're hosting, this gave me a chance to get them in here and get some training in. Plus our two coaches are USA team members who've played in multiple national championships with the Dallas Mavericks (wheelchair basketball team)."
Smutak added that program coordinators set up the camp's format to allow participants to learn the skills of the game and then apply them in official games.
"We have morning and afternoon training sessions, and then a competition in the evening when the guys play against each other and use the skills they learned during the day. We're doing that for two days," he said.
The camp kicked off with athletes muscling through grueling strength and aerobic conditioning drills. After giving the athletes an overview of the clinic's format, coaches led players through a 20-minute series of exhausting wheelchair sprints around the court and slalom-style maneuvers to build confidence in proper steering and stopping techniques. The warm-up session concluded with a free-form ball-handling and shooting session, as well as passing, dribbling and defensive routines to allow coaches to evaluate each player's general skills.
About an hour into the camp, coaches and players received a surprise visit from Woodlawn Child Development Center students who took a field trip to Specker to watch the athletes perform.
The clinic proved highly popular among athletes, coaches and DFMWR coordinators alike and, according to Fitzgerald, reflects what Belvoir is trying to accomplish in continually expanding athletic and recreation opportunities for the installation's wounded warriors.
"This is a big event for us, with sponsorship from the NWBA, and we've gotten a lot of support from the post," he said. "Steve really has expanded the WTB adaptive sports program here and I'm just glad we can help out with it."
The wheelchair basketball clinic, like the WTB's other sports activities that include kayaking, waterskiing, scuba, adaptive cycling, weight training, CrossFit, golf, yoga and many more, is part of the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command and the Fort Belvoir garrison's effort to enable healing servicemembers to stay active during their recoveries.
For more information regarding WTB Adaptive Sports programs at Fort Belvoir call Smutak at (440) 334-0228 or email Steve.A.Smutak.firstname.lastname@example.org.