David Mackey transformed steel into bronze two years ago, through a week’s worth of athletic alchemy.

This time around, the 70-year-old aims for silver — or gold, even — when he joins 19 other Arizona athletes competing in the 2008 National Veterans’ Wheelchair Games, racing his wheelchair toward another slalom medal berth in Omaha, Neb.

“You can either sit back and sit in a chair all day long or you can get involved in positive things like this,” Mackey said.

Mackey golfed three times a week at Oro Valley’s El Conquistador County Club before heart surgery complications left his legs paralyzed in 2003. He took up model-building as a hobby once he’d finished retrofitting the house for mobility’s sake.

But the wooden ship collecting dust under a desk — out of reach from the family’s inquisitive puppy — belied a competitive instinct lodged not in the former sailor’s legs, but in his heart.

There’ll be no shortage of that fire on display from July 25 through 29, when over 600 veterans swoop into the heartland, each with eyes on Mackey’s would-be spoils.

The city’s venues will play host to around 20 events, including wheelchair basketball, softball, bowling and archery.

Mackey’s competing in five games this year, adding airguns and power soccer to his plate, to augment the pair of weighty bronze-colored awards he won in Anchorage, Alaska’s 2006 competition.

And by no means did he guarantee a repeat.

“There’s guys in a hell of a lot worse shape than I,” Mackey said. “They’re really courageous, a lot of these kids. They’re fired up.”

During the 2007 Wheelchair Games in Milwaukee, 16 athletes from the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Arizona chapter won a total 39 medals — despite having no formal training facilities.

The team’s head coach — Karen Gialle, a nurse practioner at the Southern Arizona VA Hospital’s spinal cord injury clinic — offered no clue as to why local athletes rate so much success, except that they’re quite motivated.

“Invariably they all want to go next year,” said Gialle, who’s coached the team since 2001. “You don’t have to talk them into it.”

For Gialle, much of the coaching duties boil down to logistics. Due to medical conditions, some of the athletes require special chairs or shower benches for their hotel stays.

At the competition, Gialle and two other coaches — along with a host of volunteers — apply sunscreen and strap athletes in when necessary, as games like quad rugby can turn rather physical.

The rewards go far beyond medals, she said.

“Once you start getting back into the sports world, that just opens all kinds of doors socially, as far as acceptance and ease in getting around the community,” Gialle said. “It just makes everything work better.”

Gialle added that the games account for only part of the experience. Many people who suffer paralysis get mired in the idea that travel is no longer an option for them — and need to be removed from their comfort zones.

But just as the tables get turned when re-learning how to board an airplane, walking folk find themselves as outsiders at the games, according to Gialle.

“That’s really the coolest feeling,” Gialle said. “You’re surrounded by chairs, and all of a sudden, you’re the minority.”

Jackie Hymer, who coaches Arizona’s team during 14-hour event days, nearly lost her husband Steve in a similar manner, among last year’s whirl of sweat and ball bearings.

“I don’t stop. It’s not vacation, but it’s so much fun,” Jackie Hymer said.

The pair, originally from England, chose to live in Oro Valley for its accessibility factors after Steve was injured in a military aircraft crash. They complemented Gialle’s persuasiveness and contagion to involve them in the games.

They also praised the Town of Oro Valley for supporting the athletes with $6,000 grants during 2008 and 2007, used to cover travel expenses. The Town of Marana kicked in support as well, signing a $2,500 check for the athletes’ needs this year.

Fundraising might rate as the games’ unofficial year-round event, as the trip can cost athletes upwards of $1,000 to attend and compete.

The Hymers and Mackey beam about the $14,500 they raised organizing this year’s benefit golf scramble and poker run.

But it’s obvious those monies rate higher than Hymer’s silver and bronze medals in 2007’s softball and billiard events, as the funds help all Arizona’s athletes.

“It’s quite a long build-up, so it’s nice when you finally get to go and enjoy all that work,” Hymer said.

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