The George Gangi Inspiration Award honors the competitor at the National Veterans Golden Age Games who exemplifies the attributes of a true champion through athletic excellence as well as personal qualities such as sportsmanship, leadership, fellowship and tenacity.
The recipient of this year’s George Gangi Award is Robert “Sparky” Sparkes, a 94 year-old World War II U.S. Army Air Corps Veteran from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Sparkes has participated in several past National Veterans Golden Age Games in the air rifle and cycling events, but is substituting bowling for cycling this year.
“I enjoy the thrill of competing and meeting old friends. Age is just a number.”
“Sparky personifies what the games represent…an active, healthy lifestyle in later years, sportsmanship, dignity and respect for fellow Veterans,” said Darren “Chewie” Yowell, recreation therapy assistant at the Martinsburg, VA Medical Center.
“He works out and trains year-round, hiked the Appalachian Trail between Georgia to Maine three times since the age of 60 and inspires his teammates daily with a positive attitude and will to compete.”
The Veterans Canteen Service Challenge Award recognizes a Veteran who is a first-time competitor and exemplifies the main purpose of the National Veterans Golden Age Games: to promote the rehabilitative value of health and wellness.
U.S. Army Veteran Gael Keshoemaker representing VA San Diego Healthcare System is this year’s VCS Challenge Award recipient. After experiencing a stroke over two years ago, Keshoemaker faced speech and other significant physical challenges. Prior to her stroke she was a member of a bowling team and has participated in bowling at this year’s Games as well as shuffleboard, table tennis and horseshoes.
Recreation Therapist Ellen Berman states, “Gael has a heart of gold and gives so much encouragement to other Veterans. She is determined to move forward and has had a major impact on others.
Her motto is, ‘no matter what, make the effort. I can make the effort.’”
Dale Hosler prepares year-round for the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
The 83-year old Korean War Veteran said he enjoys living a healthy lifestyle. He works out at least three times a week lifting weights and using cardio equipment, and focuses on conditioning and strength training.
“I look forward to it all year so I’m ready to participate,” said the Army Veteran.
He also credits his wife with keeping him on track.
“She really helps me out and it is great to have her,” he said. “She is God-sent.”
He practices every Wednesday from his home in Fresno, Calif., throwing discus, horseshoes and participating in other team sports to prepare.
This week, when he’s not participating in the Games, Hosler and his wife plan on watching and supporting other Veterans.“She helps with the coaches, we take pictures of the athletes competing, and keep track of who is registered and who isn’t,” he said.
This year, Hosler is participatingin shot put, discus, swimmingand the sled hockey demonstration.He said he’s most looking forwardto horseshoes because he loves the head-to-head competition.
In 1945, at 18 years old, he enlisted into the Army Air Corps.
After basic training he was assigned as a jet mechanic to the 99th Fighter Squadron, the Army Air Force's first African American fighter squadron. The 99th’s personnel received their initial flight training in Tuskegee, Ala. earning them the nickname Tuskegee Airmen.
When Johnson was assigned to the 80th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, his hard work and skill earned him the unit's first F-80C Shooting Star. He was the first black jet mechanic and crew chief in the Air Force to receive the award and the first black crew chief to serve in a combat zone.
This week, at 85 years old, Johnson attended his first ever National Veterans Golden Age Games.
“I’ve always enjoyed being around Veterans,” he said. “There’s teamwork and they’re disciplined just like in the military.”
The Korean War Veteran and Highland, Calif. resident organized a local chapter of Tuskegee Airmen aptly named the Buford A. Johnson Chapter.
“These Games are more than what they appear to be,” Johnson said. “This is more about what’s good for the Veterans, what’s good for them after the military.”
Johnson retired from the Air Force in 1966.
With a common name like John Smith, this Veteran from Texas is everything but common. An Army Veteran, Smith was drafted to serve in Vietnam and then re-enlisted to serve in Germany for four years. Smith is one of 30 athletes at this year’s National Veterans Golden Age Games who are representing the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas.
He’s having the time of his life at the Games, first competing five years ago in Birmingham, Ala. In previous years, he’s medaled in bowling and swimming and thrives on competing and besting a fellow talented Veteran.
“You’ve got to have a goal in life,” Smith said
Part of his workout regimen includes walking nine holes on the golf course two times per week. He’s noticed that the activity has improved his endurance and when cycling can hold a more competitive position for speed.
He said the healthier lifestyle has also improved his bad knees. The competition and training has been great therapy and he’s dropped 25 pounds.
“A healthy mind and a healthy body give me something to shoot for,” he said.
He enjoys challenging himself and said participating in the Games has been the best thing in the world.
Judy Ruiz, a Marine Corps Veteran from Chicago, turns everything negative into a positive. This outlook has improved her overall perception of life. When she lost her ability to work as a result of multiple sclerosis, she thought she was at her lowest point in life.
This former criminal investigator, federal detective and textile regional sales manager now sees she’s always been put in the right place at the right time for all the right reasons.
Ruiz is competing for the second year at the National Veterans Golden Age Games and for the eighth time at one of VA’s national events.
“Preparing for the Games gave me back me, and a better form of me,” she said.
Ruiz previously did not participate in sports, and now feels that because of them, she has more hand and eye coordination, physical strength and range of motion. She said she owes who she is today to the staff at Hines VA Hospital and believes VA health care is better than any other private health care she ever received.
Everyone is on the same playing field at VA adaptive events, she said.
“Rehabilitative sports are great physically, mentally and socially. It’s good for the mind, body and soul,” she said.
She feels it’s her responsibility to take this message to others – “If you are feeling down, better days are ahead.”