Third time is the charm for Chicago

By Victoria Thomas | July 19, 2013, 9 a.m. (ET)

World Sport Chicago’s third annual Valor Games Midwest will be held Aug. 12-14, 2013 in Chicago. The three-day event brings together American service members and veterans with physical and visual disabilities to compete in organized sports.

The Chicago competition allows participants to partake in Paralympic sport at the introductory level, offering five sporting opportunities – archery, cycling, powerlifting, rowing and field events. Day one opens with cycling, followed by field events and archery on the second day and the competition concludes on the third day with powerlifting and indoor rowing competitions. The August event marks the third of four regional Valor Games competitions to take place this year.

“Sports are a powerful catalyst for everyone,” said Susan Katz, director of Paralympic and Disability Sport, World Sport Chicago. “The ability to be active in sport can give you an idea of the extent of your capabilities. The impact is even greater for people with disabilities because you can always do more than what you thought.”

The Games particularly resonate with Janine Spears, a veteran of the United States Army. Spears was one of the first females to serve as a combat telecommunications specialist and to serve in the Army Special Forces Unit. During her time in the military, Spears also attended one of the first coed classes at The U.S. Army Airborne School.

Her journey in sport began at Jesse Brown VA Hospital, where Spears met Susan Katz for the first time. Katz, a 2004 Paralympic gold medalist in women’s wheelchair basketball, was promoting the Valor Games Midwest, and as a wheelchair user herself, Spears decided to get involved.

“The first week that I attended, I fell in love with it. I had always wanted to do it, but I had never had the opportunity,” Spears said. The Valor Games provided Spears with the perfect opportunity. Years after being injured in a parachuting accident at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, participation in archery at the Valor Games Midwest reawakened Spears’ passion for competition: “I really wanted to compete. I wanted to feel like I could accomplish something.  There I was, amongst all these people who were hoping, just like me, to feel capable again [and] it was a huge feeling of accomplishment that I could compete equally.”

Shooting rifles since she was 13, Spears “just wanted to shoot.” And shoot she did. At the 2012 Valor Games Midwest, Spears won four medals – gold in archery, silver in shot put, bronze in discus and bronze in rowing – and she recorded one of the high scores in the tournament while she was at it. She attributes her success to organizations like World Sports Chicago: “Adaptive sports programs give you glimpses of what the possibilities can be. Ten years ago, I would have never thought that I would be shooting or competing, but here I am. And I cannot wait to compete again. I am so appreciative.”

The experience of Janine Spears is summed by Susan Katz: “the power of sport is life-changing.”

Not only did sport changed Janine Spears’ life, sport changed retired Marine Corps Lance Corporal Howard Wilson’s life.

In 2011, Wilson began competing in Paralympic judo with World Sport Chicago’s program run by Menomonee Judo Club, and when the organization partnered with the Park district to help support the judo program, Wilson soon received an email regarding the Valor Games Midwest. He said he jumped at the chance to support World Sport Chicago, appreciating his affiliation with the organization, “they have given me so much and I wanted to give back.”

Wilson said that his experience was incredibly rewarding, “especially when you see people with disabilities learning and adapting to sports,” he recalls. Not only was the Valor Games Midwest rewarding, it was empowering. Wilson added, “The five stages of grief – I remember all that jazz. Sometimes you have to go through that. You have to accept it, but it is very hard in the beginning.”

Wilson attributes a positive attitude and participation in sport to helping him through the difficulties. “Sport is an equalizer in itself [so] competing in sports really betters self-esteem. You learn how to get out of your way so you can move forward and grow.”

Wilson is legally blind from glaucoma, a genetic disorder that occurred later in life. World Sport Chicago has helped him cope with the changes.

“What World Sport Chicago has done is really tremendous for the athletes, and especially for the veterans. Being a marine, [my disability] did not happen to me when I was first out of the corps. I can only imagine being at the top of your game and then being hit with something like that. You identify yourself with your physicality. It takes so long to get an identity that, when you have that taken away from you, it is very devastating,” said Wilson.

But, like Howard Wilson, one learns to create a new identity. After getting involved with the American Blind Skiing Association, Wilson soon began competing in judo year-round. His efforts earned him a spot on the Parapan American team. Today, Wilson trains with veteran naval psychologists and nutritionists from the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

This month, Wilson will be going to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. and competing for the United States at 90 kilos. “I am just starting to learn about my body as an adult. Your body wants to work. Once you get it in shape so that it can work, it is happy. Right now, I have a happy body.”

Howard Wilson embodies the successful stories that Susan Katz desires. “I want people to learn about the available opportunities and then go back to their communities to continue learning. I want them to be active more than just three days a year at the Valor Games Midwest.”

In order to provide the resources to help prolong involvement, the adaptive sports competition could not occur without the supporting organizations that generously donate their time and expertise. Valor Games Midwest is organized in conjunction with U.S. Paralympics, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Chicago Park District. Susan Katz recognizes the enormity of their contributions, saying, “It would not happen if not for their partnership. They really drive the growth and the spirit of the movement.”

Anticipating more than 150 competing athletes, 200 volunteers and the surrounding community also provide support. Partners for the event include Adaptive Adventures, Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Lincoln Park Boat Club, Chicagoland JOAD, Chicago Bow Hunters and Lincoln Park Archery Club.

All the support helps further the goals of the athletes. Howard Wilson looks toward the upcoming games, anticipating good sportsmanship and camaraderie. “This is to have fun. It is competing amongst friends. And even the people you do not know, they are friends,” Wilson amicably jokes. “I practice to be better, but this is about enjoying. As adults, we have to be like children and enjoy the event because the only constant is change.”

Similarly, Janine Spears has high hopes for the Games. “This year, I want to go in and do well in [archery but] I am looking forward to any and all events that come my way. I am open. When you are open, you can receive more.” Her hopes are higher for the future. “I hope to get a national ranking. I want to be seen by the Olympic Committee and qualify for the 2016 Paralympics. That is my ultimate desire.”

The desires of both Janine Spears and Howard Wilson were realized at the Valor Games Midwest and now the two athletes look to inspire the dreams of other participants. Wilson affirms the power of the movement, stating that “The Paralympic Movement is about creating positive equity by way of adaptive sports. Paralympic sports are a godsend because [The Valor Games] are opportunity to succeed and become better. Once athletes compete, they become unstoppable.”

Spears echoes such sentiments, advising others that “the greatest thing that I could possibly say is that there is life after healing. I want people to know that there is hope. You can find a way to become emotionally whole, mentally whole again if you open yourself up to the possibility of change. The Valor Games recognize that people with disabilities are still people. They can still function and be productive like anyone else. All you need is the opportunity.”

Opportunities are still available. World Sport Chicago is still accepting applications for the Valor Games Midwest in August. No previous experience is required for participation. Registration is free at