Story submitted by Mike Merino with special photography provided by Larry Feldman.
Richard “The Hammer” Lilien has been hitting it extra hard at the gym as he prepares for the competition of his life.
What makes this World War II Army veteran unique is he’s 90 years old, a quadriplegic and lives full time in the spinal cord injury center at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.
But there’s a problem: The Hammer doesn’t have the money he needs to take on this ultimate athletic challenge.
Lilien, along with 21 senior veterans from Tampa Bay are training for the National Veterans Golden Age Games in Biloxi, Miss., on May 7-11, 2017. Competing will be 850 veteran athletes from more than 40 states. The games are open to veterans age 55 or older, who receive health care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The goal is to encourage older vets to exhibit sportsmanship, dedication, leadership and an active lifestyle year-round.
“Winning Gold is the dream for all these athletes, however, only a few will bring one back,” said Bernadette Hoffman, Haley recreational therapist, and veterans coach. “But along the way they will form new friendships, overcome personal obstacles, and become mentally and physically stronger than they were before.”
A successful real estate executive from Naples, Lilien never imagined at age 86 he would end up paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
“I took an accidental combination of a prescribed pain medication for a foot injury, along with my usual late afternoon martini,” Lilien said. “It caused me to black out, fall on my head and it broke my neck.”
The National Veterans Golden Age Games is the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States, and the only national multi-event sports and recreational seniors’ competition program designed to improve the quality of life for all older Veterans, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. It includes 19 different sports ranging from archery to golf to competitive swimming.
“At Haley, we honor our veterans and their enormous efforts to constantly strive for ways to express their exceptional courage and desire to rise above and beyond,” said Dr. Kevin T. White, chief of Haley`s Spinal Cord Injury Center.
Lilien’s first competition was in 2016 at the Detroit games. The VA paid for that initial trip, but vets have to pay for subsequent competitions. This year he is seeking sponsors to defray the $2,600 cost for Lilien and his caregiver. If successful, he will compete in bocce ball, shuffleboard, air rifle, and bowling.
“I won three medals in Detroit and I’m aiming for all gold this year,” he said. “I’m ready and I know I can do it.”
The games will feature a Health & Wellness Exposition offering the athletes a better experience. The exposition promotes the motto of “Fitness for Life” for senior veterans. Each gets an interactive opportunity to sample various demonstrations, displays and products that can help them maintain active lifestyles.
When asked how he got his nickname, Lilien replied, “At 75, I could hit a golf ball farther than any of those youngsters at the golf course. They were so impressed they started calling me The Hammer, and it stuck.”
You can donate to Mr. Lilien at GOFUNDME.COM: