Athletes Win With Wheels
By VICKIE BECK vbeck@tampatrib.com
Published: Aug 4, 2001

CLEARWATER - Duane ``Red'` Jensen, Mary Jensen and Bill Sundberg may not be household names. Nonetheless, they are national champions.
The three athletes were medalists in the recent National Veterans Wheelchair Games, presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).

During the first week of July, 520 athletes (ages 20-80) from 40 states, Puerto Rico and Great Britain traveled to New York City for the five-day event, which was hosted by the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Eastern PVA in Jackson Heights, N.Y.

Thirty-three athletes from Florida, including 13 from the Florida Lightning Team, which includes members from several Bay area counties, participated. The Jensens and Sundberg represented Pinellas.

All the competitors are military veterans who must use a wheelchair in order to compete. Most have spinal cord injuries. The games are divided into different classes so that athletes of the same gender with similar levels of disability are competing against one another.

Duane Jensen, of Dunedin, a paraplegic with good upper body and arm strength, competes as a ``Class 4.''

His favorite event is the slalom, an obstacle course that requires a tremendous amount of skill and speed in maneuvering a wheelchair. The timed course includes doors, tilted ramps, pyramid- shaped steps, wood slats covered with uneven blocks, a ladder-shaped device and a teeter-totter. Some of the course is completed traveling backward.

Jensen completed the event in 3.26 minutes, finishing fourth in a field of eight participants.

``It's incredible to watch these people,'' said Mary Jensen, his wife.

``You see people who are pouring their guts out trying to get through the slalom; there's a lot spirit there, a lot of emotion.''

For Duane Jensen, just completing in the event is a source of pride: ``It feels good to do it. To complete the course is a major accomplishment; it's tricky.''

Even so, the highlight of this year's games for him was watching his wife, a quadriplegic, finish the 800- and 400-meter races. ``That's a long way - and she did it.''

Mary Jensen didn't just finish her races. She placed first in all of them - the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter.

She competes in Class 1A, which means she has some arm strength but is unable to move her fingers. She uses the palms of her hands to push her wheelchair.

In addition to the track events, she also participated in the club throw, which involves throwing something that looks like an elongated, thin bowling pin. She threw the object three meters, and placed second.

Duane Jensen, 41, also competed in field events, including shot put, discus and javelin, winning one silver and two bronze medals. These activities are done from a special throwing chair, which is particularly sturdy and has a specific seat height.

Although Jensen is old enough to compete in the masters division, he prefers the open field because of the higher level of competition.


Slalom Practice Daily

The Jensens have participated in nearly all the games since 1995. They prepare by practicing with the team and by riding their hand bikes together. However, the best practice for the slalom is every day life in a wheelchair, they said.

She also attends a fitness class a few times a week. The couple also goes sailing with a local organization that provides adaptive equipment and organizes events.

Duane Jensen works as a computer technician for Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, runs a Web design and graphics business from his home and does volunteer work for the Caring and Sharing Center for Independent Living in St. Petersburg.

Mary works at Caring and Sharing, where she is developing new programs for accessibility modifications and for physical fitness for people with disabilities.

Another local athlete, Bill Sundberg of Largo, an Army veteran injured in a diving accident, also competed in several events in the 1A class.

Sundberg won a silver medal in Nine Ball, a pool game, in a field of 10 competitors. At 55, Sundberg also chooses to compete in the open field, rather than the masters division.

Sundberg wears a special hand brace to hold the pool cue, and he practiced for the event by playing able-bodied friends at local pool halls.

Sundberg also competed in bowling and in the slalom for motorized chairs. Just like the competition for those using manual chairs, the event is an obstacle course that requires successfully maneuvering a wheelchair through difficult situations.

Those barriers include opening and closing doors, going through sharp corners and tight spaces, traversing elevated ramps with slats that may bounce unevenly against the chair.

The course is done forward and then backward, and should be completed between 100 seconds and two minutes, Sundberg said.

``The course is like life with a disability - you have to get through the obstacles.''

Sundberg came in around 10th in a field of 30 to 40 participants. ``I got my shirt stuck on the back of my chair, which slowed me down.''

When not competing in the games, Sundberg goes sailing and does volunteer work for PVA and the Spinal Cord Injury Outreach Network in Largo. The veterans games were started 21 years ago, during the International Year of the Disabled, said Roxanne Fischetti, special events director for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.

The event includes basketball, archery, bowling and swimming.


Conquering Challenges

``It's a great rehab tool. We take the newly injured to see world class athletes and what they can do, if they want to put the effort in. It can be a life- changing experience for a [person with a] new injury,'' said Fischetti.

Sundberg agrees.

``In the beginning, it was a challenge for me, as a quad, to do anything out of my little sphere. Being part of a team and participating, you create ways to make life livable in a distant place. You figure things out and do what you have to do to be part of the team.

``You get a chance to see what life is about. You don't know what the barriers are going to be - like getting on a plane, being in a hotel, getting on a bus - all the stuff you can't learn in a hospital.

``You have to go out and do it.''

And sometimes there is a chance to share an important message.

``My disability [caused by a motorcycle accident several years ago], actually improved my life,'' Duane Jensen said. ``It took me out of a bad scene and made me appreciate life.''

For the athletes, it's also a chance to connect with old friends.

``The camaraderie is awesome,'' Jensen said.

The local athletes were assisted financially by the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter and Pinellas sub-chapter of the PVA.

``Sports is actually one of our more important programs,'' said Paul Wolbert, development director of the Gulf Coast Chapter.

``It gets the newly injured out of the house, gives them self-esteem and shows them there is life after a wheelchair. And there's a learning curve - year after year they learn more things they still can do.''


Reporter Vickie Beck can be reached at (727) 799-7413.