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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Bouncing back: Vets teach vets racquetball skills in new program

After practicing his serve, U.S. Army veteran Terrance Quigley stepped off a racquetball court at the Prescott Downtown Athletic Club and said he likes playing the game with fellow veterans.

Quigley is one of 20 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder taking part in the 8-week Military Racquetball Federation rehabilitation racquetball clinic taught by Jerry Northwood, a world senior racquetball champion and veteran.

"The game is fast and participating helps us mentally," Quigley said. "It's a really big deal."

Six U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps bases host rehabilitation racquetball clinics for injured veterans, but the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System is the first VA medical center to make it part of their adaptive sports program, said Steven Harper, executive director of Military Racquetball Federation.

Harper, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, recently gave a demonstration in Prescott to veterans in the program.

"I like that it's competitive, high speed, and uses strategy," said Robert Bowers, a program participant and U.S. Navy veteran who served in a helicopter combat support squadron during Desert Storm. "You have to pay attention. This isn't for couch potatoes."

Northwood said he heard Harper talk about the racquetball clinics on military bases, thought it would be a good idea for Prescott, then talked with the Prescott Downtown Athletic Club and the Bob Stump Memorial VA Medical Center in Prescott about it.

"When Jerry called me, we talked about it, and we thought it would be a great thing for the veterans for their physical health, the recreation program, helping them deal with stress, increasing camaraderie, and teaching them new skills," said Paula Moran, supervising recreational therapist, at the Bob Stump Memorial VA Medical Center.

The program helps veterans suffering from the mental and physical effects of combat, and teaches them a sport they can play throughout their life, Northwood said.

"I played before mostly for fun, but not at such a level," said Brad Chee, a participant in the program who served in the U.S. Army's airborne artillery in Iraq in 2003.

Georgia Walton McGee, owner of Prescott Downtown Athletic Club, said she watched participants at the first racquetball clinic.

"It was just wonderful to see them and the fun they had," McGee said. "It is such an honor for me to be able to provide these men and women the use of my facilities for such a great cause."

Each Saturday, the veterans spend the first hour of practice learning skills and then play matches against each other for the last hour. They can only score a point by using the skills they learned that day.

"You can see they enjoy it, that they're learning, they improve each week, and it's neat to see them compete against each other," said Ben Sialega, a volunteer with the program who works in the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office in detention. "It's like a dance in that square box, and they get out of each other's way."

Veterans use a softer safety ball at first that doesn't sound so much like a gunshot when it bounces off the court's walls, and moves a little slower to give them more time to react, Northwood said. As their skills grow, they progress to the traditional racquetball.

"I played racquetball a while ago, had a coach who really challenged me, and competed in military opportunities," said Dorice Dickerson, a participant in the program who served in a U.S. Army's ordnance unit overseas. "I'm glad to have this opportunity to get back into it. Jerry teaches us the techniques and he explains why. It's back to basics."

Peppy Bolfango, recreation therapist with the Bob Stump Memorial VA Medical Center in Prescott, said veterans like the sport because it's competitive and keeps them focused.

"It also helps them go to sleep easier at night, since they're physically tired," Bolfango said. "Veterans with PTSD often have trouble going to sleep."

Ernest Davis, who served in the U.S. Army and has played racquetball for years, said he enjoys volunteering and helping fellow veterans with their game.

"I enjoy giving back, the camaraderie, and knowing I'm helping fellow military people," Davis said.

After hearing about the program in Prescott, the Durham and Fayetteville VA Medical Centers in North Carolina and the Northport VA Medical Center in Long Island, New York are considering adding racquetball programs, Moran said.

"It would be great to compete against other VA teams and play in tournaments," Quigley said.

McGee, whose oldest daughter served in the Gulf War and whose father was a career officer in the U.S. Army, offered the veterans in the program a free year's membership at the club so they can continue enjoying the sport.

"I would like to give back in anyway I can to somehow acknowledge the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country," McGee said.

Over time, the program will expand to include disabled veterans and first responders, Northwood said.

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