Spirit of the Games

Here's yours truly after winning the 2013 Spirit of the Games Award at the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, Florida.

Here’s yours truly after winning the 2013 Spirit of the Games Award at the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, Florida

“Recognizing Outstanding Athletic Ability, Sportsmanship, and Character”

As best as I can recall, it was the summer of 1991 when I was first introduced to the Spirit of the Games Award or, at least, that’s when I heard about it for the first time.
Here’s what I remember. I was in Miami, Florida, at the closing banquet of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) when I heard the announcement. I had been injured for less than a year and had only been on my own – that is to say back in society outside the safe confines of the rehab hospital – for, yes, about one week – and the term “Spirit of the Games” really didn’t mean much to me. Spirit, as far as I was concerned, meant putting on a smile and pretending everything was OK when it wasn’t.
An older gentleman named Max Rhodes won the award and it seemed like the entire hall erupted in applause. I didn’t know who Max was but I assumed he had won a ton of gold medals or was the best athlete at the NVWG. He looked strong as he wheeled up the ramp onto the stage so I figured he might be a sprinter. I had also heard he was from Miami so I thought it might be an award given to a local vet each year.
My coach, Eileen Craffey, who I first met just weeks after my injury when she became one of my therapists, was sitting next to me and explained the award. She told me that the award wasn’t necessarily given to the fastest guy on the track or in the pool nor was it awarded to the veteran who won the most medals. She said it wasn’t a local popularity contest either.
The award had a deeper meaning. Eileen told me that the award was given to the athlete who best represents and embodies what the games are all about. He (or she) lives life in a way that helps motivate and inspire others to do their best and he (or she) makes the most of life not just for one week a year at the NVWG but every other week of the year back in the community, as well. She said the award was first given in 1987 and a racer named Russ Monroe (who has a similar injury) was the first recipient.
To be honest, I’ll admit I partly heard what she said but didn’t fully grasp the concept. I was still trying to figure out basic things like how to hold a fork. Oh yeah, and how to wear a smile when all I wanted to do was go hide in a corner, cry and feel sorry for myself.
The next year when I returned to the NVWG, I heard another name called. Then, in the subsequent few years, I heard name after name announced at the closing banquet. Every single winner seemed genuinely surprised and honored. They gave great speeches, people yelled their names and the flash bulbs filled the room. If memory serves me, I think, the Rocky theme song played as each rolled onto the stage and that was cool.
As for me, well, it took a few years but I started to see the merit and meaning of the award.
The list of winners grew longer and longer the more games I attended. Men and women, some who were injured for a long time and others who were still new to the wheelchair world (like me) rolled up onto the stage and received their award.
Holly Koester, an army veteran from Ohio, won the award five years after she and I attended our first Games together. I had raced with Holly in a couple different marathons in those early years since we were injured and I saw the drive, determination and spirit she had inside her. It was at that point that I made a personal connection to the award.
Then, over the years, something amazing happened. As I began to see the Games not simply as an athletic competition but, additionally, as an opportunity for veterans across generations to come together in friendship and share life, living and sport type experiences that might give each of us a better understanding about our own life on wheels, I somehow found myself approaching a certain group of individuals for answers to the questions that filled my head.
I was no longer sad and lonely – I was a veteran who had a community around him – but I did still had lots to learn.
I always seemed to have questions to ask. How do I go faster in a racing chair? How do I fit in at work when my wheelchair typically starts pity parties? How do I break the ice when a kid in the store approaches me and starts asking questions about my being in a chair and his/her Mom starts apologizing? What can I do to convince myself to get out of bed on those days I am feeling sorry for myself? Can I have a relationship? What about a child? Can I travel alone on a plane?
And there were those personal questions, too. You know, the kind you only ask someone in a wheelchair who you know and trust.
Coincidentally, nearly every person I approached in the years after my injury had the same thing in common. Sure, they were all good people, great role models in their own unique ways but there was more. They had all won the Spirit of the Games Award.
Mike Trujillo, Jim Martinson, Russ Monroe, Holly Koester, Ken Medeiros, George Norton, Tim Davis, Gus Sorensen, Orlando Perez, Bull Baylor, Joe Velasquez, Gary Pearson. These veterans lived like I wanted to live.  They had the answers to my questions. I thought about them when times were tough and every now and then throughout the year I reached out to them to help me find a solution or get through a difficult time.They were as accessible to me as they were to every other disabled veteran.
I read about a few of the other winners, too, and took note of the things they did even though I didn’t know them. Laura Schwanger. Phil Rosenburg. Trish LaBar. Charles Allen. Ken Huber. All great people, leaders and athletes.
But now, sitting at the banquet table in Tampa after more than 20 years attending the Games, I had figured my time had passed. Sure, in the back of my head a faint flame glimmered with the ever so remote possibility that I, too, might hear my name called but, to be honest, I had convinced myself that a new generation of veterans, those who served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, would get the spotlight.
So, at this year’s Games, when it came time to hear the winner’s name announced, I think I started to tune things out. I reached for my phone and texted. Or played a game. Or perhaps scrolled through Facebook. To be honest, I was more looking forward to seeing the Games video then hearing another speech.
Then, in the back of my head, I heard a few key words and expressions. Navy veteran. Has attended the games for more than 20 years. Won 6 gold medals and a bronze. Member of the Paralyzed Veterans Racing Team. 
I thought to myself, hey, sounds like a cool winner. Glad it’s a Navy guy. Sounds a bit like me. How many of us could there be?
Then I heard more. Married for a few years. Eight month old daughter at home. Spokesperson for National Mobility Awareness Month.
Bang. It hit me like a cannon ball to the skull. They were calling my name. I had actually won.
All eyes were on me when I looked up from my seat. The feeling was confirmed. My coach, Eileen Craffey, the same person who first sat next to me 22 years earlier, was sitting next to me again with a huge smile on her face. My roommate, George Norton, the Spirit of the Games winner from 2009, was also at my table. And so was Brad Carlson, the sports director of my NEPVA chapter (and a fellow racer and friend). And there was Wayne Ross, too, a teammate who has grown to become one of my best friends at the Games. The looks on all their faces were incredible. They were proud of me.
Yes, it really was my time.
So, in a state of confusion and utter disbelief, I broke protocol. Long story short, I never made it up onto the stage (quickly like Max did in 1991) to receive my award and I never got the chance to look out over the crowd and see the flash bulbs pop. 
 Here’s what happened. You see, all the past winners had gathered in a line in front of the stage and as I made my way towards the ramp which would carry me to my moment in the spotlight, I caught a glimpse of them all cheering for me. Yes, the same people I had turned to through the years were all there in one place as if to affirm and confirm that I was a winner, too. I couldn’t go onto the stage without thanking them so I veered away from the ramp and began giving everyone hugs.
And I’m typically not a hugger.
Well, by the time I reached the end of the line, I think I had thrown the entire banquet off schedule so the stage came to me. Bill Lawson, PVA president, handed me the trophy and Stuart Cohen, Government and Federal Account Manager at Invacare, handed me the microphone. A camera in my face ensured that every single person in the audience saw me on one of a few huge screens strategically placed around the ballroom.
All eyes were on me again. I raised the trophy high and smiled like a champion. Then, as if all those memories, experiences and feelings which I had been keeping inside finally had a voice, I gave one of the most powerful, moving, memorable speeches in NVWG history.
OK, to be honest, I didn’t. Gotcha. 
Still, to this day, I have no idea what I said. I think I talked about the time I wound up on my butt after flipping over a garden hose in the slalom event. I think I told everyone I cried, too. Yes, leave it to me to share one of the most embarrassing moments of my life with 1000 people. I was just glad I didn’t drop the trophy.
When the applause ended, and it finally hit me that I this huge trophy on my lap was mine to keep, I asked PVA President Lawson what I was supposed to do with it. He told me that PVA would ship it to my house if I needed but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
No, Bill, right now. Here and now. What am I supposed to do with this?
Take it back to your table, he told me, and share it with your team.
Then, as I tuned to roll away, my place in NVWG history became even more real. It was at that moment that I knew the Award came with responsibility. My name was now among a great group of veterans who are examples for others. I had the weight of the Games on my shoulders and I was proud to carry it. I shared it with my teammates, took a few pictures with it and thanked everyone who didn’t run from me for being athletes and athletes, too. I called my wife, my parents and my sisters. I called all sorts of old friends, too. Then I went to bed.
The next morning, after the flame was extinguished and the Games had officially ended, it was time to depart. I seat belted the Award to the passenger seat of my van, closed the ramp and doors, grabbed a sip of water, shifted to drive and headed for home. As I pulled onto the highway, I caught a glimpse of the sunrise and set the cruise control so I could see the new day beginning.
The shiny silver bowl then let me know it was happy to be with me on my 11 hour journey home. The sunlight reflected off it and as I looked over at the plaque engraved with the words “2013 Spirit of the Games Winner, Tampa, Florida” I began to cry. And cry. And cry even longer. For one entire hour.
You see, I’m not the most outgoing person and I once thought the award was given to the biggest cheerleader athlete. I’m not the fastest on the track or in the pool and you already know I once thought those were prerequisites, too. I’m not the most popular athlete at the Games and I used to think saying hello and wearing a smile and talking all day and night to each and every athlete from every state and country was a requirement. 
I am Mike Savicki. I am my own person. My disability is just a part of me. And that Award helped affirm all my years of living, learning, loving and trying.
As I ticked off the miles back to my home in North Carolina, I thought about the significance and the purpose of the Award. Here’s what filled my mind. Perhaps every winner signifies something different about what makes the Games great and that’s why the Award has had such a vastly different array of winners in its 26 year history. Paras. Quads. Men. Women. Veterans from each and every branch of service. Veterans representing a host of different sports. Some elite athletes. Some just experienced. Some vocal. Some quiet.
For me, as the 2013 winner, I think I represent consistency, discipline and helpfulness. Accomplishment, too. A unique spirit of continued motion. Someone who, while not fully accepting of his disability, has nevertheless made the decision to live with it and make the most of each and every day. Someone not afraid to try new sports, to travel to new places, to meet new people, to fail every now and then, to succeed, to live and to love. And, perhaps most of all, someone who appreciates and values the gift we are given each year in the opportunity to participate in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, together as one, as athletes, competitors, friends and lifelong members of our nation’s military family. 
I am ever so thankful for the love and support I have in my life. I am proud and honored to have served. And I am committed to representing as best as I can.