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It's All About The Gear At The National Veterans Wheelchair Games In Dallas

Hundreds of military veterans have taken over the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas for the National Wheelchair Games this week. Some are novices just out of rehab; others are Paralympians.

And at this competition, it’s all about the wheels.

There’s nothing standard issue about gear at the wheelchair games. Softball players use chairs with angled wheels; that’s called camber. Rugby athletes brave the scrum with heavy-duty rugby sport chairs. And the guys playing power soccer have motorized chairs with plates on the front that look like snow-plows.

Ernie Butler shows off his Seahawks spokes

“Wheelchairs have come so far in the technology of the chairs. My first chair weighed over 30 pounds,” says Ernie Butler, Director of Sports and Recreation for the Paralyzed Veterans Association. “The chair I’m in today is all carbon fiber, weighs 6 and a half pounds with the wheels on it.”

Limitless Options

Butler was injured in a parachuting accident 20 years ago. The options he has now, for his everyday chair and his sports gear, are practically limitless.

“My hand-cycle has the very, very latest, greatest high-pressure tires because I want to put as little rubber down on the road so it will go as fast as possible,” Butler says.

Athletes who want style points can order laser-cut tires. You can change the angle of the seat to suit a specific sport. There are front wheels that light up, tie-dye frames, and motorized chairs blasting music. All spotted at the Wheelchair Games. Butler’s devotion to his favorite NFL team is on display too.

“On my chair I’ve got green and blue spokes, I’m a big time Seahawks fan,” he laughs.

A Chair Built For You, And Only You

Athlete Tyler Wilson is a big fan of personalization. The 30-year-old was wounded in 2005 during a fire fight in Afghanistan. He’s competing in four events this year.

“It’s a huge part, being more active now than I ever was, it’s a game-changer in a lot of ways,” Wilson says.

He’s an avid cyclist participating in events like Ride the Rockies, a 470 mile trek through Colorado. His paralysis hasn’t stopped him from skiing either. When you take sports this seriously, your chair is built for you and only you.

“They’re all fitted to you, they’re custom fit, which is huge. Especially in skiing. Your seat is your ski boot,” he says.

That’s one of the advancements Ernie Butler is glad to see.

“Wheelchairs are as individual as a pair of pants. I always like to tease people and say I’m just a short guys with round legs,” he says. “Truth be known they are my legs and so they have to fit comfortably and they have to be able to do what I need them to do.”

Which is why the old, one-size-fits-all wheelchair days, are long gone. 

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.