July 1, 2012

Foon Rhee: Angela Madsen helps veterans heal through sports

Noah Bailey didn't want to say much about how he lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan 6 1/2 years ago, or how he's tried to cope since.

Noah Bailey didn't want to say much about how he lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan 6 1/2 years ago, or how he's tried to cope since.

That was before Angela Madsen, a fellow veteran twice his age, patiently tutored him on the finer points of the shot put: the hip turn, the chest thrust, the push off the fingertips for a higher arc. Strapped into a padded chair anchored in a Sacramento field, with only his right prosthetic leg on the ground for leverage, Bailey threw farther and farther as Madsen, one of the world's best in her event, encouraged him.

Right before my eyes, he opened up to her.

Bailey, 27, of Grass Valley, shared that he's been in a "funk" for the last couple of years, is a patient at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Martinez and is just getting back into sports after a friend there motivated him.

"It makes you feel better," he told Madsen. "It gets your mind on something."

Madsen, who is paralyzed from the waist down, told him that she was suicidal before she resumed sports.

Bailey, who just got prosthetics specially designed for running, asked whether someone could do a field event like shot put and run track at the Paralympics – the Olympic Games for the disabled. When he told Madsen he's also interested in archery and shooting, she replied that with his build, he could also be a good rower.

I could almost see a new dream forming in the gleam of his eyes.

That's the power of sports – a force that government agencies, nonprofits and veterans groups are trying to harness to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries.

Thanks to improvements in body armor and battlefield medicine, they survived wounds that were death sentences in previous wars. When they come home, however, their recoveries are that much more grueling.

At the same time, with advances in medicine and prosthetics, many more veterans who lost limbs or suffered other disabling injuries are able to take part in "adaptive" sports.

In a series of columns in California Forum, I've been writing about many of the hurdles that new veterans are facing: too few jobs, not enough health care services, too much government red tape to get benefits. Meeting and talking to vets for this piece was far more uplifting.

I would defy anyone not to be inspired meeting someone like Madsen.

After joining the Marines in 1979, she ruptured two disks in her back playing basketball in Barstow for a Marine team. A botched surgery 13 years later damaged her spinal cord. For two years, she says, she was deeply depressed – until she got involved in wheelchair sports.

"First, I did it to survive," she told me. "Now, I do it to thrive."

Madsen, 52, started with basketball, then focused on rowing. Her list of accomplishments is impressive and growing. She was on the U.S. team at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, she's crossed the Atlantic twice, and next year she's planning her first solo long-distance row – from California to Hawaii. She also gives back through a rowing program for the disabled in Long Beach.

Last year, a coach suggested she try the shot put. Now, she's a good bet for a medal at the 2012 Paralympics in London later this summer. She's also a role model and mentor to veterans like Katie Patterson.

The 26-year-old was in the Army from 2004 to 2006, including time in Baghdad as a mortician. Out of the service, Patterson broke her left leg in 27 places in a skateboarding accident and ended up in a wheelchair.

She found "adaptive" sports, and rediscovered the motivation and camaraderie of the military. "You don't feel alone," she told me.

Her prime sports are weightlifting and water skiing, and she's aiming for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Patterson, who lives in Indianapolis, is cheered on by Madsen. They first met at a sports clinic, and now they e-mail back and forth. "I think she's fabulous," Patterson says.

The two renewed acquaintances last month at the Pannell Community Center in south Sacramento at an event showcasing a program to get more injured veterans involved in sports. The center boasts a fully accessible ball field and swimming pool, so nearly 60 veterans were able to play wheelchair softball, scuba dive and more.

The program, which serves more than 250 veterans, is the pride of the city of Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department, which has its own Paralympics club and is teaming up with seven other Northern California clubs, sharing coaches, equipment and facilities.

The parks department received a second $150,000 annual grant last December from a partnership of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which gave money to 95 groups across the country, including nine others in California.

The USOC is looking for a few good men and women who could be elite disabled athletes. As of last week, 14 veterans or active-duty service members had made the 220-strong U.S. team going to the 2012 Paralympics, which start Aug. 29, just after the Summer Games. After the track and field trials this weekend in Indianapolis where Madsen was expected to qualify, it's likely that the military contingent in London will be bigger than the 16 who competed in 2008 in Beijing.

The VA is seeking inspirational examples for injured veterans and seeking to make sports a bigger part of their rehabilitation. Each of the last two years, the VA has given $7.5 million to the USOC to train veterans and start community sports clubs. About 14,000 veterans took part in the programs in 2011-12; that number is expected to double in 2012-13.

Physical activity means healthier vets who need fewer meds and who have a better mental and emotional state that boosts recovery, says Christopher Nowak, the VA's national director of sports programs. Sports have a particular appeal to younger vets, he says; the kind of person who volunteers for military service during wartime often was a competitive athlete growing up.

"After a traumatic injury, the first thing they want to do is participate in sports," Nowak told me. "It's a natural fit."

For some veterans, the ultimate goal is the glory of a gold medal. But most would be happy just feeling the rush of competition again, or getting their bodies to do just a smidgen of what they used to take for granted.

"Try everything," Madsen urged fellow veterans at the Sacramento event. "Don't give up. It takes courage to fail."

Come to think of it, that's pretty good advice for all of us.

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