Vets Adapative Sports: "This Is Not Your Father's VA Anymore"

Oct 5, 2012

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are encountering a different mindset at area VA hospitals. The younger, post-9/11 veterans are used to X-Games and high-velocity sports.

So, therapists and doctors are adapting. One wet and wild example was sponsored recently by the James A. Haley VA Hospital.

A Veterans Adaptive Water Skiing Expo showed veterans the ropes recently at Seminole Lake Park in Pinellas County.

Volunteers attach a metal frame seat to the single ski. A disabled skier is strapped into the seat.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien

Mark Lalli was a Blackhawk crew chief before a helicopter crash landed him in a wheelchair. The Army veteran decided to try water skiing hoping to reclaim a sense of excitement and rush of adrenaline.

Lalli was strapped into a metal frame attached that was attached to a single-wide ski and pulled behind a speed boat with two assistants at his elbows.

“I have tried a lot of things now since my accident that I’d never tried before and I figure  if I may not get a chance to do it again so I might as well take the chance now,” Lalli said after his first ride around the lake. “It’s a risk and it was a whole lot of fun”

That is the whole idea behind adaptive water skiing according to Ann O’Brine founder and director of U Can Ski 2. It’s a USA Water Ski affiliate ski club whose mission is to teach water skiing to disabled.

“We’re not here to teach them just to water ski we’re here to teach them how to live again. Life doesn’t end when you buy your first wheel chair,” O’Brine said.

She’s been in a wheelchair for 63 years since she contracted polio as a child. But, as an adult, she discovered adaptive water skiing.

Ann O'Brine, founder of U Can Ski 2, kept volunteers organized and the speed boats running on time at the Lake Seminole Expo.
Credit Bobbie O'Brien

“It gave me the freedom to get out of my wheelchair and to feel normal even if it’s just 15 minutes on the water,” O’Brine said. “You can feel able bodied out there because you forget you can’t use your legs.”

Pain was the biggest fear that Army Staff Sergeant Patrick Crockett had to overcome his first time water skiing. He has had several neck surgeries and lives with a lot of discomfort.

“Did it hurt? Yes, it hurt a lot for a couple days afterwards, but it was worth it because I went out there and I challenged myself,” Crockett said. “I had fun.”

Crockett also lives with PTSD. He saw the water skiing expo as an opportunity to show other veterans how adaptive sports helped him.

“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, being depressed, suicidal I wanted to do something with my life,” Crockett said. “I wanted to challenge myself. I knew I could do better.”

Putting veterans back into sports they played prior to their injury or getting them to try new sports is the job of Jamie Kaplan.

“You’re looking at a group of ultra-competitive men and women,” Kaplan said. “They got into the military because they like being outdoors, they like being active, they like doing sports and we want to show them that post-injury they can continue to do those things.”

Kaplan is a recreational therapist in the Haley VA poly trauma, spinal cord injury program.

“It used to be when our veterans would come to VA, they would say here are the programs - we have bingo - we have craft kits - go to town,” Kaplan said. “Now, we’ve modified that. This is not your father’s VA anymore. When our patients come through the door instead of telling them what we have, we ask them what they like.”

And Kaplan said there is no limit based on physical ability because it’s his job as a therapist to adapt equipment and the sport so every veteran can participate.