"I never thought I would be able to play basketball again," said Cpl. Kevork Khachadurian, who lost his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in August.
But there Khachadurian was last weekend, along with the rest of the Walter Reed Bethesda wheelchair basketball team, participating in the 2012 Capital Wheelchair Basketball Invitational Tournament in Building 17's fitness center at Naval Support Activity Bethesda (NSAB).
"It's another great opportunity," said Khachadurian, who also took to the ice for the first time two weeks ago since his injury to participate in an adaptive sled hockey clinic along with other wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
Many of the wounded warriors have reservations about sitting in a wheelchair after rehabbing to walk again, but those who do participate in the sport find it enjoyable and gives them a good workout.
"This activity works the upper body, strengthening biceps, triceps and deltoids," explained Tiffany S. Smith, certified therapeutic recreation specialist at WRNMMC in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. "It's a team sport, and [the players] have to engage in team dynamics and working together in order to succeed," she added. This is what she says many of the warriors enjoy most about wheelchair basketball.
Recreation therapy is an extension of wounded warriors' rehab plan through occupational and physical therapy.
"Everything wounded warriors have learned and trained for under their clinical therapists in the hospital setting, is being transferred to an adaptive sports activity outside the clinic," Smith said. "Therapeutic recreation provides wounded warriors the opportunity to increase independency, cognitive abilities, physical capabilities and work on social skills in a group setting under the supervision of a recreation therapist."
"They enjoy the time spent with their peers. It's a great social outlet for the warriors. It gives them an end goal to look forward to such as a tournament or event to demonstrate what they have learned from the clinics, which makes any adaptive sports activity rewarding," Smith said.
In last weekend's tournament, the Walter Reed Bethesda team finished fifth in the eight-team wheelchair basketball tournament, which included teams from throughout the east coast. This was the second year for the event and the first hosted at NSAB in the new fitness center.
"The tournament was a huge success with many good teams from all over the east coast, and tough competition," said Heather Campbell, of the U.S. Paralympic Military Program, that sponsors the tournament.
"The Walter Reed Warriors have been working extremely hard in practice, and showed much improvement from last year's tournament, Campbell said. "Saturday, they played extremely well together, finishing their division in second place going into Sunday. Sunday, the Warriors played tough and gave a strong Richmond team a good fight. "
Bill Demby, who coaches the Walter Reed Warriors, is also a double-leg amputee injured in Vietnam. He coached wheelchair basketball teams at both the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center and former National Naval Medical Center for nearly four years before the two integrated last fall.
"I love the game of basketball," Demby said. "I always want to introduce it to new people and it's a challenge with these guys."
He explained one of the challenges with coaching the team of wounded warriors is the turnover of players, because of their different appointments and they leave after finishing their rehabilitation at Walter Reed Bethesda.
"So I have to sort of start over again," Demby said, but he added that also brings new challenges and excitement. "Working with new people and teaching them the game is exciting."
Another challenge with coaching the players, Demby said, is teaching them to play in a chair.
"The average person who has played basketball wants to jump up to get a rebound or shoot," he explained. This is no different than the wounded warriors - there’s a natural tendency to want to jump for the ball, but with wheelchair basketball, players must remain seated and a seatbelt ensures they remain in the chair.
"Trying to control the chair and the ball at the same time is also a challenging aspect of wheelchair basketball, Demby added.
"Being in the chair is the most challenging thing unless it's something you start out with. I can show you things, but you have to be out there and practice, practice, practice," Demby said.
"I love the game," said Cpl. Justin Knowles, injured June 25, 2008, by an IED in Afghanistan.
"A lot of us are real competitive," Knowles said. "Before I was injured, I played a lot of football," he added. He said wheelchair basketball helps satisfy his competitive nature.
Lance Cpl. Matia Ferreira, injured after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan Jan. 21, 2010, also said he likes the competition the sport offers.
"The top teams in the tournament come out with a lot of intensity and experience," said Ferreira, who's been playing wheelchair basketball for about eight months. "Those guys are amazing and it's a challenge to try and pick up on their abilities and how they play the game."
He went on to note that he loves what the game offers.
"I enjoy the camaraderie the sport offers, coming to the games and applying what we've learned in practice in the games," Ferreira added.
Wheelchair basketball has been part of the Paralympic Games since 1960. Many of the same regulations apply in the wheelchair game as they do in the able-bodied sport, except special rules accommodate dribbling from a wheelchair. You can spin your wheels twice before having to dribble, shoot or pass the ball. Otherwise, it's a traveling violation. When shooting free throws or three-pointers, the rear wheels have to stay behind the respective lines.
You can bump another player with your chair, but if you do it too hard, it's a foul. And of course, you can't lift your body out of the chair to gain a shot, rebound or defensive advantage, according to the rules of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation that governs all aspects of wheelchair basketball, including court size and basket height, which remain the same as regular basketball.
Wheelchair basketball is also contested during the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., which will be held this year from April 30 to May 5. The competition, hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee, is also supported by the Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, USO, Fisher House Foundation and the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The Games were created in 2010 as an an introduction to Paralympic sports for injured service members and veterans.
To learn more about the Warrior Games, visit http://usparalympics.org/.
For more information about the therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports program at WRNMMC, contact Tiffany Smith in the America Building, lower level, Room B313, Amputee Center, or call (301) 295-8525.