For the last 20 years, Laura Jeanne has acted as coach and cheerleader while her 19-year-old daughter, Amber, participated in 4-H and rodeo.
Laura was always on the sidelines, a source of encouragement and inspiration.
Next week the roles will reverse as Laura competes in the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, Fla. Her events are air rifle, archery, bowling and the 100 meters.
“We had to pick a minimum of four and maximum of five events,” she said. “I’m hoping to medal in air rifle.”
While air rifle is her best event, archery is her favorite.
“There’s just something about the feel of the bow and the arrows, the idea of Katniss (from the popular book series ‘The Hunger Games’) and the Native American,” she said.
Laura is among a group of about 15 athletes from North Texas who left for Florida Friday.
The event is put on by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, and this year it’s hosted by the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America. It’s expected to draw more than 500 athletes from across the nation.
Laura served in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 1992 and in the Texas Guard from 1994 to 1997. She was a pilot and flew missions over Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm but wasn’t confined to a wheelchair until 2009, when she was paralyzed following a horse training accident.
Just four years later, she continues to volunteer with the Wise County 4-H Dog Project and has even taken on new volunteer opportunities at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
“You know, life is good now,” she said. “I stay busy, and everybody keeps saying, ‘We’re proud of you’ and all that. But I’m just living life; I’m not doing anything special.”
Laura said she first heard about the games at the V.A. hospital where she visits a spinal cord injury clinic.
“They have an Internet cafe there where we all hang out between appointments,” she said. “Everybody there is either in a wheelchair or on a walker, and they all go.”
Familiar with her determination and willingness to try new things, her friends encouraged her to compete. And that’s all the inspiration she needed.
“She is a person who loves to challenge herself, and for her it’s a constant challenge to say that ‘I can still do the things that are important to me,'” said Serene Smith, CASA executive director. “This is just a really neat opportunity for her.”
Jeanne was slated to go the games last year, but she broke her hip prior to the competition and was unable to attend. The setback did not deter her, though, as she set her sights on this year’s event.
Training hasn’t been easy. She said she’s only been able to shoot her bow daily for about two weeks.
“It took awhile to get all the equipment,” she said.
But every morning she makes her way outdoors to practice with the help of Amber and her friend Corey Henson.
“If I’m by myself, I spend more time looking for arrows, and it’s no fun,” Laura said.
She’s spent so much time on shooting that bowling and the 100 meters seem like more of an afterthought, although Amber noted her mom’s bowling has also greatly improved.
“She started out getting a score of 17, and then she beat us the other day with a score of 117,” she said.
Laura said her goal for the 100 meters was to “not get last.”
“The only reason I signed up for that is because it’s the one track event that you don’t have to have a racing chair,” she said. “I needed one more event so I thought I’d try. I just want to go out there and have fun with it.”
Amber is her mom’s biggest fan.
“From seeing her not even able to get herself out of bed, and now she’s on a plane to Florida. We’re all proud of her.”
Smith said she’s excited to see Laura meet one of the goals she has set for herself.
“She’s an awesome lady and a joy to be around,” she said. “To see someone who’s gone from being a helcopter pilot over Iraq to being in a wheelchair and still saying, ‘I’m blessed,’ is remarkable. She doesn’t sit down and feel sorry for herself. She looks for ways to make life better for others.
“I appreciate everyone who’s helped her and sponsored her,” she said. “I’m hoping that she just rocks it when she’s out there, but I know mostly for her, it’s just the fact that she gets to compete.”
To keep up with the results of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, follow @VAAdaptiveSport on Twitter.