Fifteen years ago, Ike Cook stepped on a land mine in Vietnam and lost both his legs. Only 30 days later, he already was able to sit up in a chair for 10-15 minutes at a time, brush his teeth, comb his hair and put on his shirt.
"I didn't go through the usual depression, the anger and the frustation," says Cook, 38, a former sergeant in the 101st Army Airborne. "I figured I was lucky to get out of Vietnam alive."
At the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Cook received physical, occupational, correctional and recreational therapy. He lifted weights, practiced maneuvering his chair and eventually learned to drive his automobile. Three years later, with only eight weeks of training, members of the recreational therapy department entered Cook in a wheelchair competition.
"I did the 100 meters," Cook said. "I was a novice coming into the sport. But basically, I could see progress. There were [people with] spinal cord injuries starting from nothing and succeeding. We had tremendous support and encouragement. And I liked the activities."
Cook is now a world-class wheelchair athlete, one of six men in the world to break four minutes in the 1,500 meters. He is winner of 60 gold medals in events ranging from the 100-meter dash to the marathon. He also helped host the first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond in 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons.
This year's National Veterans Wheelchair Games will take place at the University of Maryland at College Park Thursday through Saturday. Cook, who is directing the meet as well as competing, says that more than 300 wheelchair athletes from around the country have registered for the competition, which includes basketball, swimming, weightlifting, road racing, track and field, table tennis, billiards and archery.
While it is one of the largest wheelchair competitions in the country and one of the most competitive events for these athletes, most of the participants view the veterans games as more than just a competition.
"One reason why the games have proven so successful is that when you're with 200-300 other wheelchair athletes, you have the chance to socialize with your peers," Cook says. "It's a chance to discuss current problems that we have to deal with and to exchange the different wheelchair racing technology.
"The games are important, but the fact that the veterans are doing something constructive with their lives is far more important than the athletic competition."
"It's a feeling of comradery," says Victor Peary, a 45-year-old from Seabrook, Md., who broke his neck in a truck accident in 1962. "We were in the military. We're all in the same boat. I'm out there training hard and I want to win but I like being around the guys and having fun.
"Besides competing, the greatest gut feeling I have [at these competitions] is watching these other guys giving all they have to overcome their disabilities. That's what brought me back. The feeling of competitorship and fellowship."
Which is why Ken Archer, a 36-year-old world-class wheelchair marathoner from Bowie, also is competing at the games.
"I wish I could say I look forward to competing more than training," says Archer, who won all the track events except the 100 meters in the 1981 veterans games. "But it's close. I'll be meeting a lot of veterans who I've heard about. But I actually enjoy training more than competing.
"When you start feeling real, real good, when you break through the pain barrier and you begin feeling good, you get on a high. More than anything, it makes you come back."
"All of us like a challenge," Cook says. "There are times when the challenge is in the training. Sometimes it's pushing others to best performances.
"The veterans wheelchair games has a unique quality. We teach to people there what we've spent 10 years learning. And being veterans makes us more together. Our lives don't depend on winning or losing."
To be eligible for competition, the participants must be military service veterans who are wheelchair-bound due to spinal cord injuries, certain neurological problems and amputations. Non-veterans are invited to compete in a 1,500-meter event open to all wheelchair athletes.
Athletes compete in seven different divisions depending on the extent of their injuries. These disabilities range from spinal cord injuries to the fourth through sixth cervical vertebra, which affect both arms and both legs (quadriplegic) to injuries that strictly affect the lower extremities (paraplegic).
Cook, a double above-the-knee amputee, will be competing in the latter category as will his close friend Archer. Archer lost use of his legs in 1970 when they were pinned between two automobiles and were crushed. Both veteran wheelchair athletes have signed up for all six track races, which range from 100 meters to the five-kilometer.
Victor Peary is a novice wheelchair competitor. He first competed last year in the Mid-Atlantic Wheelchair Games in Fishersville, Va., where he finished third in billiards.
"I mainly went there to compete in billiards and observe what the whole thing was about," said Peary, who has signed up for the shot put and billiards in his first veterans games. "I came away with the feeling that I could compete as well as everyone else could. A lot of people are not aware of what people in wheelchairs can do. Just because you're sitting in a wheelchair doesn't mean you can't do anything."
Peary, who threw the shot put for Bladensburg High School as well as played a good game of pool, said it took him 15 years after his accident to become athletic again. "I wish I had [become involved in athletics] a lot sooner. It is great. It gets you into shape and it's great to compete and train and meet new guys.
"I needed something to be able to compete with my able-bodied friends. So I bought this pool table in 1982 and I found that I could beat these guys."
Archer, a mathematical statistician at the Bureau of Labor Standards, got back into athletic competition five years after his accident, when one of his friends at the VA Hospital in Cleveland asked him to play wheelchair basketball. Two years later, he began marathon racing.
Many wheelchair sports had their beginning in VA medical centers which have sponsored and coordinated wheelchair games and competitions for many years. Cook has been a recreational therapist for seven years at one such center, a spinal cord injury center in Richmond called Hunter Homes Veterans Administration Medical Center.
"I entice my individuals to get out of bed to do things that are interesting," said Cook, who often trains with his patients on the University of Richmond track and keeps score when the group goes bowling. "We use road racing, billiards, bowling to get people out. We use games for motivation. Sports is a universal language. People know sports in many different ways, shapes and forms. Sports are one of the best avenues because you can see success."
Cook and Archer attribute their success in the veterans games and other wheelchair competitions to the fact that winning is not that important to them. But as a newcomer, Peary says he wants a taste of victory.
When asked if he thought he could beat one of his competitors, Charles Willis, in billiards, Peary became very excited.
"He knocked me out at Fishersville," Peary exclaimed. "I didn't know he was a veteran. I'm glad you mentioned him. You made my day. I want to beat that guy."
For information about competing in next year's National Veterans Wheelchair Games, call the Recreation Service of the Veterans Administration at 389-5389. For information about viewing this year's games, call the Public Affairs office of the Veterans Administration at 389-2741.