Hector Varela served in the U.S. Navy as a Chief Gunners Mate. He suffered a traumatic head injury and amputation during his service. He has played wheelchair basketball with the NWBA for over five years on the NMCSD Wolf Pack.
Q: When did you join the service?
A: I joined in 1988. I went to boot camp with the U.S. Navy. I was in the service for 24 years and retired November of 2012.
Q: Why did you join the service?
A: I grew up in a small town, a farm town. We did not have a lot going on there of interest to me. At that point I wanted to travel the world and I talked to Navy recruiters and they told me I could travel the world and get paid to do it. So that is what I did.
Q: Why did you leave the service?
A: When I left I was getting ready to retire. I was getting to the maximum years I could serve at the time. Three months prior to retire I got injured. That is how I ended up here.
Q: Do you mind telling me about your injury?
A: It was a motorcycle accident. I got hit on the side by a truck.
Q: How did you find wheelchair basketball?
A: So at the hospital at the medical center in San Diego, the rec therapist there reached out and told me “Hey come on. Just shoot around and sit in a chair.” From there a couple of guys decided to go ahead and make it official. So we put a team together and started competing in the NWBA.
Q: What impact has wheelchair basketball had on your life?
A: It has allowed me to continue to be in a team environment with the military itself, the team environment, the team building. I can get with a bunch of guys from different branches of the service and finding that you need interest in team sports. We all like basketball. We all play on the weekends, some in college or high school, then after the military and everyone got injured we decided this would be something good for us.
Wheelchair basketball played a significant role in Brian Wofford’s recovery, both physically and mentally, from his combat injuries. In high school he was a three sport athlete who played football, wrestling, and powerlifting. Wofford identified as an athlete, and post amputee he questioned his identity and if he could still be an athlete.
“It [wheelchair basketball] was instrumental in helping me to move past some of the questioning things in my head and to prove to myself that I can still be competitive and can still be an athlete. Just because I am disabled doesn’t mean that part of me is gone,” said Wofford.
Wofford was first introduced to wheelchair basketball through Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior Project. The organizations paid for a snow skiing trip in New Hampshire for Veterans. They conducted a fundraiser to help pay for the trip by having the newly injured Veterans play wheelchair basketball against the local fire department.
The games were played in regular day chairs, but Wofford immediately fell in love with the sport. He went back to his hometown, McLoud, Oklahoma, and talked to the VA where he was connected with a team in Oklahoma that was affiliated with Oklahoma University.
Wofford’s story to how he became an amputee starts in 2001, when he joined the army for active duty as a 19 Delta Cavalry Scout or a reconnaissance specialist. He was inspired to join by the father-like figures in his family who had all served and his upbringing had taught him to always defend those who can’t defend themselves. After he completed basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he was deployed to Korea, Texas, and lastly Iraq in 2004.
Wofford and his crew were doing a grand opening for a sewage pump station they had rebuilt in Baghdad. They were getting ready to head back to base when two car bombs detonated and threw Wofford out of his truck ten feet into the air.
Despite the chaos around him, he remained calm. “They [the medics] came up to me, ‘Sergeant Wofford, what’s the matter?’ I said my left leg hurts, I can’t lift my right hand but I am okay, go help someone else,” he explained. “I ended up being the last of the 11 U.S. soldiers injured that was evacuated out of the area because I was so calm and coherent. It turned out that I ended up being more of the critically injured.”
He suffered severe shrapnel injuries to his entire body and was in a coma for a week and a half. When he woke up, he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Originally the doctor told him he was in no danger of losing his leg, but after a complication during his surgeries, his left leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Today, Wofford sees his amputation in a positive light. “I think it was a blessing that I got amputated rather than keeping my leg,” he said.
Wofford retired from the Army in July of 2005 and received several awards for his service. He has been playing wheelchair basketball for 12 years now and currently plays for University of Wisconsin- Whitewater.
He is thankful for being exposed to the sport and the impact it has had on his life. “I was really grateful for Disabled Sports USA and the Wounded Warrior project for being so active with the Department of Defense and exposing us to disabled sports and showing us that we can still continue to be athletic,” he said. “When I found wheelchair basketball, I took to it right away. It was a huge part of my recovery physically and mentally...I always tell people it was my saving grace."
Mike Romanowski was just 19 years old when he joined the United States Airforce to work in Security Forces. He had never been away from home, never been on a plane, and everything was new to him. But once he completed basic training, he came to the realization that he could handle the military.
Romanowski joined in 1994, and describes his years in the service to be rather calm compared to post 911. “I was what they call pre 911. The kids nowadays, post 911, they are going to Iraq, Afghanistan, things like that. I never saw any combat, I was never shot at or anything like that,” he said. “The world was a very different place before 911. 911 changed a lot.”
As a member of Security Forces, his job was to protect the bases and make sure all the rules and regulations were followed. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan for three years and Lexington, Massachusetts for one year. When stationed in Japan, he dealt with the controversy of their presence.
“We had some instances in Japan where there was a lot of protests about us being there so we had to delicately deal with the Japanese citizens. So that was difficult for me,” he said.
Romanowski originally joined because he had a lot of friends join the military at the time and it “seemed like kind of the cool thing to do.” He received an Air Force Commendation Medal for his service and left in August of 1998 to pursue his goal to become a police officer. He was a police officer for about ten years, until 2009, when he contracted multiple sclerosis.
His diagnosis was life changing. “It was very difficult. I was out of work, I had to figure out a different way to bring in income for my family. We almost lost our home. It was very difficult. It was a long few years,” he said. But through it all, his family was extremely supportive. “Without them I would not be here.”
Romanowski’s life took a turn once again when his family moved from Michigan, his home state, to Nevada, in 2014. However this time, it was for the better. A man from the VA in Las Vegas introduced him to wheelchair basketball.
Having played able-bodied football, baseball, and basketball growing up all the way to high-school, it was a difficult transition from able-bodied sports to wheelchair basketball for Romanowski. “Wheelchair basketball was a thousand times more difficult than stand-up ball,” he said. “You are not only worrying about shooting a basketball, but you are also worrying about pushing a wheelchair. The motion of shooting a basketball is different because you are not really using your legs. I still struggle with that, the shooting part.”
Soon, Romanowski began to love the sport and everything about it. Wheelchair basketball had such a positive impact on his life that when the former coach of the Las Vegas team decided to take a year off, Romanowski decided to take over and create a 501c3 non-profit called the Las Vegas Wheelchair Basketball Foundation. The foundation gave him the opportunity to impact lives the way wheelchair basketball impacted his.
“I got a text message from someone in Detroit about our team because he is moving from Detroit to Las Vegas. He played basketball for the Detroit NWBA team and now he wants to play with us. I was able to help give him resources,” he said.
Romanowski says he and his non-profit are working towards getting more Veterans involved in wheelchair basketball.
Thank you Veterans
The NWBA would like to thank all Veterans for their service. We appreciate our Veteran members telling their stories and for becoming involved in our sport, regardless of their story.
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - Jen Lee might be best known for his Paralympic accomplishments in sled hockey, but it was wheelchair basketball that paved the way. Lee was first introduced to adaptive sports during his rehab at the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center. Having played able-bodied basketball in high school and the years after, he naturally gravitated towards trying wheelchair basketball first.
However, it was not an easy adjustment for him. “When I couldn’t play regular basketball anymore it was very, I guess you could say depressing. It gave me a lot of doubts if I could play any sports,” said Lee.
Lee had to adjust to the fact that the wheelchair was his legs and to technicalities like changing the arc in his shot because he sat lower to the hoop in a wheelchair. He first began playing during rehab and for military teams, and then he learned about the NWBA’s team the San Antonio Wheelchair Spurs.
“I was excited, I was told there was also half the guys who are going through rehab, have been there longer than I have now, and are still continuing playing. And there was actually some veterans on the team. So it was actually a very competitive team.”
Although much of Lee’s life is involved in adaptive and Paralympic sports, that was not always the case. Lee grew up in San Francisco, California involved in able-bodied sports and had military-driven aspirations.
“Growing up I always wanted to become a solider or join the military. I played with GI Joe and watched a lot of different movies that talked about previous wars and the history of our country,” he said.
The military was never a serious consideration for Lee until September 11. “It was my sophomore year of high school and it kind of really felt like for the first time the country really coming together without political biases or opinions...It made me realize I want to do something to play my role”
It was in 2004, just barely a high school graduate, that Lee enlisted in the Army as a Crew Chief Mechanic. His job was to ensure all the birds were up in the air without any issues and to drop off supplies to bases. A couple years later, Lee was shipped out to Kirkuk, Iraq for his first and only deployment.
He described the first few months to be difficult. “There was still a lot of things going on politically. We were still trying to find Saddam Hussein, but at the same time captured and killed both of his sons so there was a lot of stuff going on as far as action,” he said.
Despite the dangers in Iraq, it was the danger of Interstate 95 that changed his life forever. In 2009, Lee was driving back to his base in Savannah, Georgia with four other Sergeants when he found himself “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was side-swiped by a car and ejected off his motorcycle.
A young man of just 22 years old, Lee was forced to medically retire from the service. He had had his left leg amputated above the knee, but that did not stop him from fighting to stay in the Army. A program called Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) played a significant role in his pursuit to continue in the service. WCAP was looking for Paralympic athletes and Lee had been selected for sled hockey.
“They [WCAP] realized that the Paralympics is something that can give combat wounded soldiers or injured service members another purpose,” Lee said.
Lee was able to continue active duty for another three years after he finished rehab. He left the Army in January of 2015, having served for 11 years. He received numerous medals for his service: Army commendation medal, global war on terrorism, Iraq campaign medal, army achievement medal, and Distinguished Service Medal. He also won two Paralympic gold medals and two World Championship gold medals with the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, which he has been a member of for seven seasons.
Although wheelchair basketball isn’t the sport he chose to pursue on the Paralympic level, he still continues to play with the Spurs. He appreciates and thanks everyone involved in the program as wheelchair basketball was a turning point in his life. Lee said, “It gave me the spark to want to compete again.”
Thank you Veterans
The NWBA would like to thank all Veterans for their service. We appreciate our Veteran members telling their stories and for becoming involved in our sport, regardless of their story.
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLORADO – Today, the United States honors the 101st year of commemoration that Americans remember those who served our country. Veterans Day, originally called Armistice Day until 1954, is honored on November 11 as this was the day when fighting ceased during World War I.
Wheelchair basketball started in the U.S. following World War II through Veteran Administration Hospitals in Birmingham, California; Framingham, Maryland; and the Corona Naval Station in California in 1946. Two years later, Dr. Timothy J. Nugent formed the National Wheelchair Basketball Association that was comprised of the VA hospital teams and a few other new teams across the country.
Today, seven percent of the current NWBA adult athlete membership are veterans or active duty personnel. In honor of those who have served our country, we are sharing some of our veterans’ stories throughout this week. "NWBA Veterans Week" stories will be shared on the NWBA website and our social media accounts.
In addition, Fox Sports Network will also be airing tributes on NWBA members that are veterans that will air on Fox Sports Networks around the country. The regions will air them during their broadcasted NBA game - today (November 11). The NWBA will also share these video segments, when available, on our social media platforms.
Today we celebrate the United States Armed Forces, the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard and their families for their support, courage, and service of our country, the United States of America. The NWBA Board of Directors, staff, national teams and all other members thank all military personal for their service to this country.
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - The NWBA is pleased to announce that the Athlete Selection Procedures and Athlete Applications are now available for the 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball Teams. The Athlete Selection Procedures are the eligibility requirements and process for the selection of the 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball Teams. Both team’s final rosters will consist of 12 athletes that will compete at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan from August 25 to September 6, 2020. The deadline to submit an NWBA High Performance Player Application for Men and Women is 11:59 p.m. MT on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
All athletes interested in trying out for the 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball National Teams must complete a 2020 NWBA High Performance Player Application. Please click on the links below to complete a 2020 NWBA High Performance Player Application.
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - The NWBA has finalized the Staff Selection Procedures with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee for the 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball Teams. Based on these Staff Selection Procedures, the NWBA High Performance Staff Selection Committee has nominated the following individuals, pending approval from the USOPC, as staff for the 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball Teams:
2020 U.S. Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team Staff
2020 U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team Staff
Coach Lykins is the winningest international coach in NWBA history – winning gold in three Paralympic Games (2004 and 2008 for U.S. Women; and 2016 for U.S. Men). Lykins’ head coaching resume is nothing short of amazing, having coached in 17 international competitions, reaching the gold-medal games in 16 of those events, and bringing home the top podium finish in 11 of the events. These top podium finishes include: three Paralympic Games; one World Championships; three Para Pan American Games; and four American Zonal Qualifiers. He also has a Paralympic silver medal in 1992, and four silver medals from the World Championships.
Most recently Lykins has captured a gold medal at the 2017 America’s Cup in Cali, Colombia, a silver medal at the 2018 IWBF World Championships in Hamburg, Germany, and a gold medal at the 2019 ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru. With the gold medal finish in Lima the U.S. Men earned their qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Coach Johnson served as the assistant coach of the U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team from 2013-2016, which rolled to a gold-medal performance at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Johnson was the assistant coach of the 2013 U.S. Men’s U23 National Team and the head coach of the 2013 U.S. Women’s U21 Team, that won a gold at the Junior ParaPan American Games in Argentina.
Johnson led the U.S. Women to a silver medal at the 2017 America’s Cup in Cali, Columbia. Last year, he led a young-developing U.S. Women’s squad to a 4-4 record and sixth place finish at the 2018 IWBF World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. Earlier this year, Coach Johnson coached the U.S. U25 Women to a perfect 6-0 record and dominate competition to earn gold at the 2019 IWBF U25 Women’s World Championships in Suphanburi, Thailand. Most recently he led the U.S. Women to a silver medal at the 2019 ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru. With the silver medal finish in Lima the U.S. Women earned their qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
The 2020 U.S. Men's and Women's National Wheelchair Basketball Teams will compete at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan from August 25 to September 6, 2020.
Please see attached Staff Selection Procedures for a complete list of staff eligibility requirements and selection process.
I had the honor to serve the Junior Division for six and a half years in three different positions. The reason I worked to so hard is to serve the amazing kids who make up the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Junior Division.
I have been given the opportunity to highlight some of these remarkable young athletes in the NWBA's Athlete Spotlight series presented by Toyota. The first junior athlete I will showcase is Evan Heller.
I became aware of Evan last season when he submitted his application for Timothy J. Nugent Academic All-American consideration. As part of his project (to view his project click here), he explained that his first exposure to wheelchair basketball came from his school based team. This is an unusual avenue to the sport from my experience, but I definitely hope that this becomes far more commonplace for generations of wheelchair basketball players in the future.
Evan’s first exposure to adaptive athletics came when he participated in sled hockey with the Ohio Blades when he lived in Columbus, Ohio. In 2014, Evan and his family moved to Wooster, Ohio where he was encouraged to try wheelchair basketball through his new school district that had started the very first interscholastic adaptive sports team in the state.
Evan was not sure what to make of wheelchair basketball. His perception of wheelchair basketball before he started playing was it could not be as enjoyable as its able-bodied counterpart, but after trying it his opinion quickly changed.
He told me as part of our phone interview, “People should just try it (wheelchair basketball) before making a judgement about it. The competition is great and I have had the opportunity to meet so many great people."
After trying wheelchair basketball for the first time in 2014, Evan joined the Wooster Generals in 2015. The last two seasons the Generals have been the undefeated Champions of Ohio with a record of 34-0. Evan states “My teammates and I have been able to show our school community that we are athletes, just like the football players or the soccer players or any other able-bodied athlete competing for our school.”
During competition with the Wooster Generals Evan learned about the Achievement Center's Junior Cavaliers, an NWBA Junior Division team made up of junior athletes that participate on different school teams in Ohio and others who currently do not have wheelchair basketball in their school districts.
Evan decided to join the Junior Cavs in his sophomore season. During Evan’s first season with the Cavs, they qualified for Nationals for the first time. The Cavs finished 8th in the National Invitational Tournament for a final ranking of 24th. The Cavs took that experience and continued to improve qualifying for the Varsity Championship for the first time ever and finishing 6th nationally. Evan was honored to be named to the All-Tournament Team at Nationals.
Evan is very excited to see if he can keep the state winning streak going with the Generals and to continue to work hard with his Cavs teammates to see if they can improve on their 6th place finish. “I am really excited for the upcoming season. The Jr. Cavs were probably one of the best kept secrets in the NWBA junior division last year, but this year we will probably have a target on us so we will have to be ready to play.”
Evan has many interests outside of basketball. He is a member of his school’s marching band and on the Wooster Generals track team. He is a three-time State Runner-Up and All-Ohio performer for wheelchair track and has made Wooster High school’s Wall of Fame thanks to his success on the track.
Evan also feels a responsibility to give back to other challenged athletes and to the sport of wheelchair basketball. He and others involved in interscholastic competition in Ohio lobbied state legislators in May to increase funding so more school districts could compete in wheelchair basketball. For the last two summers, Evan has been part of the ranger leadership program at Flying Horse Farms Summer Camp. Flying Horse Farms provides children with an opportunity to enjoy life and forget about their life threatening illnesses such as cancer. Evan plans to became a full-fledged counselor at Flying Horse Farms when he is old enough.
Evan also looks forward to his future where he plans to continue to play wheelchair basketball. He plans to play in the College Division next year, but has not made his final decision on where he will play yet. Evan’s advice to younger athletes who want to play in college is to focus on academics and always do their best. He told me that as he makes all his different college visits, one of the first questions that coaches ask is about his grade point average and how has he done on the ACT test.
I would like to thank Evan for taking the time to work on this with me and I look forward to spotlighting more Junior Division student-athletes in the future.
About the Author, Chris Rathje
Rathje started his adaptive athletics career in the third grade as a member of the Windy City Warriors in suburban Chicago. In 1993 Rathje was one of the original members of the prep team the Junior Wheelchair Bulls.
When it was time to play varsity competition Rathje went on to play for the RIC Spalding Bulldogs which was the precursor to the Chicago Skyhawks. Rathje played four years in the College Division at the University of Illinois.
In 2012, Rathje returned to the wheelchair basketball community to coach the Windy City Warriors alongside his college roommate, and current Auburn head coach, Robb Taylor.
From 2013-2019 Rathje volunteered for the Junior Division as educational liaison, vice president and president of the Junior Division. He looks forward to sharing stories that will hopefully open doors for student athletes with physical disabilities.