There are plenty of war stories to be told at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, but most of them go unmentioned, the talk focusing, instead, on medals and personal bests.
"Sometimes, a couple of fellows will start talking about the war," said Joseph Guzman, a Vietnam veteran who is one of 23 athletes representing Puerto Rico in the competition at the University of Maryland. "A lot of times, fellows try to forget. I'm one of them . . . Some people sit watching the seashore or the ships go by. We show the rest of the world we can still do something."
"It's unspoken," said Vietnam veteran John Walls, 43, of New York, who is participating in the games for the first time. "I know how he feels," added Walls, pointing to Sam Dicaula, a Korean War veteran from Fresno, Calif. "He knows how I feel."
"I did the job. I got injured," said Dicaula, 52. "Now, I get it out of my mind."
The games opened yesterday morning at Byrd Stadium with a parade of athletes and a torch-lighting ceremony, and will continue through Saturday. Competition will be held in track and field, swimming, basketball, archery, bowling, table tennis, weightlifting and billiards.
"You don't hear people talk about being in the service much," said Stefan Florescu, 58, a World War II veteran who has participated in wheelchair sports for 25 years. "But you get a feeling of camaraderie that doesn't exist in other competitions (wheelchair events not solely for veterans)."
For Guzman and others, games such as these are mentally and physically therapeutic.
"When I got injured, I stayed in bed for a year," said Guzman. "I was depressed. I think the wheelchair games are the best thing to ever happen to me as a veteran."
Not all of the veterans here were injured while in the service. Many of the more than 300 participants were disabled as civilians. But they all have two things in common: they were once in the service, and they now use a wheelchair.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are being held for the fifth year. There also is a National Wheelchair Games, open to all wheelchair users, which is in its 24th year.
Among the innovations developed for these competitions is a tethering system used to secure the chairs for the shot put and other field events. Before, someone had to hold each chair to keep it from tipping over. Perhaps the most fascinating innovation is the design of the wheelchair used for the track events. Instead of the bulky everyday models, athletes use streamlined chairs that weigh as little as 17 pounds.
"The real progress in chair design was made about nine or 10 years ago," said George Murray, who is not a veteran but won an exhibition mile race yesterday in 4:36.5.
Murray races -- or runs, as wheelchair athletes say -- in the wheelchair divisions of many major road races, including the Boston Marathon. As a top racer, he has a promotional contract.
"That shows a young kid he can have success as an athlete even if he can't play football or baseball," Murray said.