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Military News

Wheelchair event pays off for veterans, Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: July 18, 2013 at 10:19 AM

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Alex Simpson left Los Angeles on July 7 and headed to Tampa on a mission.

He wanted to win gold medals at the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games. And he wanted to sample some of Tampa's famous Latin food.

So Simpson, who was a record-setting sniper when he served in the Army, and his father, a Marine Corps veteran and retired information technology specialist, climbed into Simpson's specially outfitted van and drove for four days across the country.

By Wednesday morning, with the games nearly over, Simpson had completed half his goal.

He won three gold medals out of the four events he was in. But he had yet to get his food.

"I love Hispanic food," says Simpson, 28, sitting in the hot sun on the riverfront patio of the Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel. The hotel is the official headquarters of the competition, which began in Tampa on Sunday and concludes today with championship games and closing ceremonies. "I'll be here till Saturday, so I am going to go out and find some."

Simpson's sentiment is the proverbial music to the ears of Tampa leaders and the people who spent a good chunk of the past two years working to bring the games here and make them a success. With more than a thousand people pouring into Tampa to participate in, coach or watch, the games have been a boon for the area.

"It's been a huge success," says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "From the opening ceremonies to the games that continue, it's been nothing but positive. I have seen a number of athletes on the street, and there were a couple last night at Ocean Prime. They are loving Tampa."

Several downtown restaurants agreed that the games have been beneficial.

"It's been really good," said David Mangione, general manager and partner in Hattricks Tavern, 107 S. Franklin St. "We have had a lot of people coming in from the games."

Mangione, whose restaurant has a metal wheelchair ramp leading out to the sidewalk, said he did not know exactly how much business has increased.

"These are some of the nicest people I have ever seen," he said. "What really amazed me was that we had people coming in from so far away. We had people from Minnesota, Colorado."

Over at L'Eden, a restaurant at 500 Tampa St., chef-owner Gerard Jamgotchian estimated that the games have increased business by about 5 percent.

"Of course it has been good," he said. "And they are very nice people, too."

Before the games started, officials estimated they would bring nearly $4 million into the local economy, with about 6,000 room nights. That prediction seems to be on target, said Jason Aughey, senior director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

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Inside the Tampa Convention Center, speaking over the thunderous booms of wheelchair hitting wheelchair during the quad rugby semifinals, Jeanene LeSure said the games have been successful far beyond any economic impact.

"The games have provided rehabilitation outside the clinical setting," said LeSure, 31, a recreational therapist at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital and the head of the local organizing committee.

LeSure said she has been working for 2 years to bring the games to Tampa. And since they started, she and her colleagues have been working 20 hours a day to make sure they are running as smoothly as possible.

But watching the athletes compete, she said, makes it all worthwhile.

"Just look at the smiles all around here," LeSure said. "The athletes are proud of what they have accomplished."

Sitting in his heavy-duty wheelchair built just for quad rugby, a hard-hitting sport made famous in the 2005 movie "Murderball," Ryan Lindstrom said that being able to compete restores his sense of well-being.

"This inspires me to keep moving forward," said Lindstrom, 29, who was in the Navy just six months when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident more than a decade ago.

"I love the contact," he said of the rough nature of the game. "It gives me a sense of release of aggression. And it is a lot of fun."

A few feet away, Bryan Price, 32, of Leeton, Mo., pulled off his helmet and beamed after pushing his wheelchair over slalom obstacles that included a gravel pit.

"That was great," said Price, who was paralyzed when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb outside of Baghdad on June 21, 2006.

Like Lindstrom, Price said competing has been inspirational. And coming to Tampa for his first games "has been awesome. I really like it here. You have a beautiful downtown. I really like how it is all surrounded by water."

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During his first deployment to Afghanistan, Alex Simpson, a sergeant, helped set the distance record for a kill by an Army sniper.

It was Jan. 2, 2008.

"We were at an overwatch position in Kunar province when we noticed four guys pretty far away," Simpson said.

After confirming that the men were armed enemy, Simpson said he and his partner, Sgt. Nick Ranstad, called in for permission to take the shot.

"After 45 minutes, we got the approval," Simpson said.

The first shot missed. The second shot, he said, hit the target, who was 1.3 miles away, putting the team in the record books and earning them a trip to the White House at the invitation of Vice President Joe Biden.

Simpson said he survived a lot of close calls in two deployments to Afghanistan. But 10 days after his second deployment, he was paralyzed while snowboarding in Austria.

"You just never know," said his dad.

During his time in Tampa, Simpson won gold medals for table tennis, bowling and swimming. But when it came to the air gun competition, he came up empty.

"I am going to compete next year and get that medal," he said.

But first, there is the food.

"I can't wait to explore Tampa and have a good Hispanic meal," he said. "That's my favorite."

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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