For Lee Harris, winning four gold medals at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games this year was not that big of a deal. He has won lots of other medals at the state and national levels since an automobile accident left him confined to a wheelchair 29 years ago.
“I’m not there to win,” the 49-year-old Leesburg area resident and 1988 East Clinton High School graduate said Tuesday. “It’s nice to win and it makes you feel good, but I’m really there just to compete with and meet other people in wheelchairs. They really inspire me. Some of them can’t move their arms or do other things I can do. They kind of help motivate me to do the things I want to do.”
This year, Harris won gold medals at the national competition in the shot put, slalom (obstacle course), bowling and nine-ball (billiards). In other years he has also won gold medals in team soccer, as well as the events he won this year.
Harris said he was still in rehabilitation in Cleveland from his 1989 accident when a recreational therapist started talking to him in 1990 about competing in wheelchair games.
“He was the one that talked me into going to the games,” Harris said. “I was very excited, to tell you the truth. I like the competitiveness of it and seeing how you do.”
He said he competed from 1990 to 1997, took some years off when he and his wife adopted a couple children from Russia in 1998, went back to the games from 2008, back again in 2013, and has competed most years since then except for one when the games were held in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Veterans qualify at the state level for the national games.
Harris was just four days short of turning of 20 and was in the military when he and two buddies decided to go out for a night of partying on Oct. 1, 1989. He said that about midnight he went back to their vehicle, got in the front passenger seat, and went to sleep. Two hours later the owner of the vehicle got in and went to sleep. About dawn the other guy got in the car and decided to drive. He hit a utility pole going 70 mph, Harris said.
Harris suffered broken bones including his neck, holes in his heart, and too many other injuries to detail. He went from jumping out of airplanes to laying in a hospital, flat on his back, for six months. He had 34 tubes in his body at one time.
“Because of a foolish mistake of going drinking and getting in a car,” he said. “I have nightmares of being in that bed and not being able to move.”
When he spoke at a Prom Promise event at the Highland County Fairgrounds in 2015, he said it takes him two hours to get ready to go anywhere.
“I had big plans for my life, but a lot of it went down the drain when this happened,” Harris said. “Please, if you’re out there drinking, be smart – don’t drive. Call your parents. You might be grounded for life, but it’s better than being like I am. Please, be safe and think before you make a foolish mistake like I did.”
In high school, Harris said he started playing football and participating in track and field, “But they both ran into planting and harvesting season, Dad worked on a farm, and I always tried to help out.”
He joined the U.S. Army in November of 1988.
In recent years he has coached youth soccer and football teams, and was also a 4-H shooting sports advisor. He said he did it mostly because he wanted to see his children compete and be active.
“I don’t believe kids should set around the house and play video games all day,” Harris said. “When I was a kid I didn’t come in the house until it was dark. I think that’s what all kids should be out there doing, not inside playing games. I don’t think that’s what they need to help them grow.”
These days, Harris said he practices some sports more than others.
“I practice the obstacle course every day. You go in Walmart and it’s an obstacle course everywhere in there,” he joked.
He said that around March, he’ll start going to the VA and practicing the shot put every or every other week, depending on his schedule, although he works on his arms all the time. He said he bowls about twice a year, mostly at competitions, doesn’t practice soccer because there’s no one to practice with, but does practice billiards some.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. The games serve veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other central neurological impairments with the goal to increase their independence, healthy activity and quality of life through wheelchair sports and recreation, the organization’s website says.
There are 19 different events veterans can choose from.
Harris said he can’t remember exactly how medals he has won, but it has been a lot. He said he plans to return the 2019 national games July 11-16 in Louisville, Ky. with a goal of winning five gold medals.
“But if I don’t, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m still competing.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.