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Veterans Wheelchair Games athletes arrive in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: July 13, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Sitting in his wheelchair, Davis Celestine grabs the hard rubber handle of the free motion rowing machine at the New Tampa YMCA, and pulls it back, repeating the maneuver over and over until beads of sweat drip from his brow.

For Celestine, president of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the workout has a dual purpose. It helps him get ready to compete in the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games as an athlete, and it lets him work off the stress of having spent the past two years helping to organize the event. Starting with the arrival of athletes from Britain on Thursday, the games, which run from Saturday to Thursday, will bring to Tampa more than 600 athletes - a record -and at least as many family members, coaches and support people.

All told, the event should bring in nearly $4 million to the region, including about 6,000 hotel room nights, organizers say.

"It started off slowly and picked up like a freight train," says Celestine, 38, a Navy veteran who was paralyzed from the neck down in an accident at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in 2001.

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games will hold 18 medalled sporting events and two exhibition sports at nine venues across the region, including Raymond James Stadium, the Forum, Lake Seminole Park, Jefferson High School, two Pinchasers bowling alleys, Hillsborough Community College, the Tampa Convention Center, the Clearwater Long Center and the Tampa Marriott Hotel Waterside, which is the event headquarters. The athletes will compete in sports like handcycling, airgun shooting, softball, bowling, basketball, quad rugby and another dozen more, including water skiing for the first time, a nod to the region's beach culture. The games kick off Saturday with opening ceremonies 11:30 a.m. at the Forum.

With so many athletes in wheelchairs coming to town and having to be in so many places, a brigade's worth of volunteers was needed. More than 4,000 volunteer positions have been filled, according to Karen Collins, spokeswoman for the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, which is putting on the games along with the PVA. Hundreds of volunteers will be shuttled daily in a fleet of buses making continuous round trips from the Freedom Parking Lot at the hospital to the Marriott, Collins says.

And with so many people coming in from so many places, Tampa International Airport has been gearing up for the games as well.

"This airport never handled this many people in wheelchairs ever," airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps says. "Usually we might handle three or four at a time off a flight, but at last count we were expecting around 400."

Because many of the athletes will be bringing several chairs with them to compete in different sports, planning to meet all the logistical needs has been intense, Nipps says.

The biggest crush will be Friday, Nipps says, and the airport has planned a celebration to greet the athletes, including children from Schwarzkopf Elementary School, the Plant High School band, and a couple of Gasparilla krewes.

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As chapter president, Celestine says he has spent about 25 hours a week for the past two years helping bring the games to fruition, reaching out to the local business community for donations, and helping tie together logistical loose ends.

The games were not cheap to put on. Collins says that there was about $400,000 raised in in-kind and monetary donations and another $400,000 in VA and DVA funds.

Jason Aughey, senior director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission projects that more than 6,000 hotel room nights and more than $3.75 million in direct visitor spending will be generated as a result of hosting the games.

There will be benefits beyond the spending, says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

"The games are another opportunity for Tampa to showcase amazing athletes," says Buckhorn, "and to tell their story to the world and to show potential employers that these folks, although they were injured, in some cases in catastrophic ways, they can be contributing members of this community and this country."

The athletes, says Buckhorn, are inspiring.

"It brings tears to my eyes," says Buckhorn, who will be at the opening events Saturday morning at the Marriott, "It makes me proud to be an American."

Buckhorn says he will be a frequent visitor to the games, including a stint in a wheelchair Saturday morning during a basketball game between the athletes and a group of local dignitaries and media types.

"I'll do whatever I can," he says.

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Ultimately, the games are about the athletes, men and women who have overcome adversity to compete and win.

Davis Celestine says that he was inspired to get involved after watching the 2007 games in Wisconsin.

"Seeing the athletes compete made me realize what was possible," he says.

This year, Celestine, who has won several gold medals in past games, plans on competing in swimming, hand cycling, weight lifting, bowling, water skiing and quad rugby.

"I am looking forward to quad rugby the most," he says. "Every year I try to add a new sport, and quad rugby is really tough."

For more information about the games, which are free, and a complete schedule, go to www.wheelchairgames.va.gov.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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