Bending down beneath the weight, Christine Bowden adjusted her grip on the barbell, breathed in, and began to heave 125 pounds upward.
During more than 10 years in the Army and three tours of duty overseas, Bowden was often mentally and physically challenged. Now that she has returned to civilian life, she pushes herself with powerlifting and rowing competitions, like the Bridge II Sports Valor Games Southeast that took place in the Triangle this week.
“The games and the sports here help me to challenge myself and my own thoughts and say, ‘Hey, look, don’t limit yourself,’” Bowden said Wednesday.
The annual Valor Games Southeast were created four years ago by Bridge II Sports, a nonprofit based in Durham that helps disabled youth and adults become involved in sports. The Southeast games are one of four regional competitions across the country for disabled veterans and members of the Armed Forces. They’re held with help from private donors and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
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For the past decade, Bridge II Sports founder Ashley Thomas has been pushing programs to promote and widen access to adaptive sports that are modified to account for disability. The point, Thomas says, is to “put disability in a positive light,” encouraging people to participate in sports in ways they often don’t realize they can.
Wednesday marked the second day of the Valor Games, with more than 100 veterans and members of the Armed Forces competing in archery, wheelchair basketball, table tennis, powerlifting and rowing. Archers took aim at targets on the lawn outside Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, while inside wheelchair basketball players maneuvered up and down the Duke Blue Devils’ home court.
“We can’t play for Duke, but it’s even better playing on the court,” said Army veteran Marcus Leggett, 26, of Burlington. “It’s an honor to be able to do it out here.”
After an opening ceremony Monday in Durham, competition began Tuesday at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill with boccia, air rifle shooting and volleyball.
The final day of the games took place Thursday at Lake Crabtree Park, with cycling, shot put and kayaking, followed by closing ceremonies at Metlife's Cary Global Technology Campus.
Some of the veterans came long distances to take part in the games. Vietnam veteran Steve Aoyagi, who lives just outside Chicago, dominated in table tennis, sending balls flying across the court floor with a mean serve. Aoyagi plans to attend seven table tennis competitions across the country, including three of the four Valor Games, in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest.
Aoyagi, who has diabetes and muscular distrophy that make it hard to move around, said the main draw for him is the other people he encounters.
“Meeting new people, the veterans, my brothers and sisters – we all have so much in common,” he said. “I feel very, very comfortable around them.”
That was a common refrain among competitors at the games. The competitions don’t just keep them active, they said, but also connect them with other veterans and a community of support.
“It’s amazing how they can set everything up and get all these veterans together and allow us to compete and build camaraderie,” Leggett said, “the same camaraderie we had while we were in the military.”
Elementary school students from Eastway Elementary in Durham attended the competition Wednesday, filling Cameron Indoor Stadium with cheers. Local volunteers from UNC, Duke and elsewhere supported competitors, encouraging and coaching them.
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