Sixteen years ago, George Murray was hunting in a Florida woods when he fell down a steep trail, and the 22-caliber pistol he was carrying accidentally discharged. The bullet shattered his spine.
Murray, now 30, does not seek sympathy or compassion when he tells of the traumatic incident that paralyzed him and confined him to a wheelchair for life. He blames no one and asks no favors.
"You're dealt the cards and since there's no other game in town, you play the hand out," said Murray, a student at the University of South Florida. "People suffer all kinds of bad experiences in life. You learn to adjust very quickly. You just feel good you can see another morning."
Mikel Strole and Jon Brown, polio victims, also are confined to wheelchairs.
These three, along with approximately 400 other paraplegics from the 50 states have gathered here at James Madison University and the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in nearby Fisherville to compete in the 22nd annual National Wheelchair Games, four days of weightlifting, track and field, table tennis, archery, slalom, swimming and, of course, socializing.
The athletes compete in five classes according to the severity of their disability. A person who has limited movement in his limbs would be in Class I whereas a person able to walk with the use of a cane or braces may be in Class V. Murray, for instance, has all of the movement in his upper body and is in Class III. However, the muscular athlete has the skills and strength to compete in Class IV and V.
"We aren't here because we're courageous at all," said Murray. "We're just athletes. Being in a chair is beside the point. Like anyone else we work hard and practice daily to make it to these games. People would look at us in wheelchairs and marvel at our courage and determination. I say just look at the results of what we do."
Murray didn't receive the coverage or notoriety that usually accompanies the winning of the famed Boston Marathon. But it was he and not Bill Rodgers who crossed the finish line first back in April.
"Of course wheelchair participants get a 15-minute head start on the runners, but we go the full 26 miles too," said Murray with a trace of pride. "My time was 2 hours 26 minutes, almost a minute and a half faster than Rodgers' time. Winning that was a great satisfaction for me."
Murray's accomplishments did not begin at the marathon. He is the defending national wheelchair 440 (1:19) and mile (5:26.63) record holder.
Murray finished fifth in the feature mile yesterday. Donald Vandetto smashed Murray's national record by two full seconds, finishing in 5:22.81.
Meanwhile, The Capitol Wheelchair Athletic Club of Washington also fared well in the meet. Mike Prather just missed the national 880 record, as he completed his two laps in 3:03.67.
Strole, a 27-year-old secretary from Denver, had added more medals to her already large collection after yesterday's track and Friday's swimming events. And although her 50-yard women's free-style record was one of 23 that fell during the swim meet, and she finished second, Strole was happy as a lark and couldn't wait to get to the square dancing social session.
"I've had polio since I was 8 months old but it never stopped me from doing anything I wanted," said Strole, who wore a T-shirt with a picture of a wheelchair rolling over a man dressed in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat."I taught myself to swim and learned everything else a little at a time. I can't say I've ever lost or missed anything because my road was always going up."
The road up has been a slow one for the wheelchair game participants, but judging by the spirit, good-natured practical joking and camaraderie, the trip has been pleasurable. "We're doing something we're interested in and that's what counts whether you're in a chair or walking," said Murray.
Brown, who weighs 246 pounds and says he is "4-foot tall in a chair," was the brunt of Incredible Hulk jokes.
"I'm probably the biggest guy here. When I come down the street, I see people go out of the way to avoid me," said Brown, who once lifted a car so a friend could fix a flat tire. "I don't know whether it's the chair or me. I know I'm so strong I scare myself."
The World and Olympic wheelchair champion in the heavyweight division, the 35-year-old watch repairman from San Bernardino, Calif., came here to break his own bench press record of 580 pounds.
Brown's had no peer Friday night when he won the gold medal, lifting a total of 500 pounds.
"I wanted to do more, but that's the way it goes," he said. "I'll do 700 before the '84 games."
Brown's only competition with nondisabled lifters left a sour taste in his mouth. He lifted 95 pounds mote than one of the U.S.'s more well known heavyweights to win first place, but that athlete protested that Brown didn't execute two stages of the power lift.
"Naturally I couldn't do the squat or the dead lift," Brown said bitterly. "But technically he was right, I'm happy competing with the wheelchair competitors."
As far as trying to prove a point against nondisabled persons in athletics, most participants here agree they want no part of that.
"We have more competition than we know what to do with now," said Murray. "We have nothing to prove to no one but ourselves."
"Sometimes I'm not sure people understand what we do," said Brown who contacted polio at age 3. "We work hard to accomplish these goals. One day wheelchair games will be a marketable profit for everyone to see. That day will come."