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Miami VA Healthcare System

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Adaptive sports give navy diver new direction

Matt Kleemann maneuvers his wheelchair through gravel as part of advanced wheelchair training.

Matt Kleemann maneuvers his wheelchair through gravel as part of advanced wheelchair training.

By J. Elise Van Pool
Friday, July 19, 2013

While driving down a Connecticut road on a cold winter day in late 2012, Matt Kleemann swerved to miss a deer, hit a patch of ice and woke up in a hospital unsure of what happened to him.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of new things,” he said.

Gesturing to around his diaphragm, “I’m a T-8 complete para,” meaning he completely severed his spinal cord at his eighth thoracic vertebrae. He has no feeling from his bellybutton down.

After surviving the accident and undergoing several surgeries in Connecticut, Kleemann was transferred to the Miami VA to be closer to his family in South Florida and start his road to recovery. Little did he know that road would include sailing, waterskiing and horseback riding with the help of people like Brooke Westmorland, and the occupational therapy team at the Miami VA Healthcare System.

“Once I got here, Brooke came and said you want to go horseback riding, you want to try hand cycling, you want to try sailing? When I was an inpatient here, I got really involved in everything they offered, sports-wise and really enjoyed it.”

Enlisting at the age of 17, Kleemann always knew he wanted a job that would allow him as much time in the water as possible. He had spent his youth waterskiing and fishing in the warm waters off the South Florida coast, and developed a passion for diving that led him to the Navy. He was subsequently stationed at Naval Submarine Base New London, in Connecticut where he helped maintain and repair the ships docked at the New England naval base.

“I’ve grown up on boats and stuff, but never actually sailed. I had a lot of fun doing it,” Kleeman said, recalling his first day outside of the hospital in months to Shake-A-Leg Marina in Miami. “They let us actually sail and taught us to do everything. It felt really good to be back out on the water doing something fun.”

That first outing opened up a world of possibilities for Kleemann, “Before I didn’t realize how many adaptive sports there were. It really opened my eyes to a lot of different things. I wanted to do more.” 

Veterans at the Miami VA participate in a wide range of adaptive sports, recreational and occupational therapy programs designed specifically for them. These opportunities include sailing, swimming, bowling, horseback riding, scuba diving, cycling, rock climbing and archery. (For videos of veterans doing adaptive sports click the following link:
“Besides the health related benefits and reduction of secondary medical conditions, adaptive sports have proven that the individual builds confidence while accepting one’s disability,” said Westmoreland, who also helps run the adaptive sports program. “Reduction in depression with an increase in vigor, self-esteem, relationships; as well as greater possibility for employment or returning to school,” are also some of the benefits that come from participating in adaptive sports programs Westmoreland said. 

Since that first outing Kleemann has participated in multiple adaptive sports programs. These programs allow for a unique learning environment, allow him to meet others in a similar condition. “I was at a camp in Alabama. I met this one kid. He was a quad and he pushed a manual wheelchair and he really inspired me.”

Looking forward to the Wheelchair Games in July, Kleemann said, “You’re around people who have to deal with the same stuff you have to deal with.” 

Kleemann trains nearly every day for the Veteran’s National Wheelchair game in July, participating in different activities and classes to help improve his skills and endurance. Some of these classes, like the advanced wheelchair training have real world applications in addition to preparing for events like the wheelchair slalom. In this class Veterans learn to negotiate the world in a wheelchair, going up and down stairs, curbs and escalators. (For video of advanced wheelchair training follow this link.

“I really had no idea people were so advanced with wheelchairs. They had no barriers. I never really thought about people going down stairs in wheelchairs,” said Kleemann.

To see him now, Kleemann makes it look easy but it didn’t start out that way. “I did fall,” he said, remembering his first time attempting to go down stairs. “It was definitely hard, being right after surgery. I was in a lot of pain. It was pretty tough.” Now he can go down escalators, several stairs, and roll up over curbs and through gravel.

Only six months after his initial injury, Kleemann is preparing to participate in five events at the Wheelchair Games, being held in Tampa, Fla. He will be participating in several events including hand cycling, swimming, archery, basketball and a waterskiing clinic.

“My goals are to do good in the slalom, medal in the swimming; I’m not much of a basketball player, but that will be fun,” said Kleemann of his expectations for the games. “I’m excited to meet people from all over and to meet the other Veterans, [and to] meet people my age.”

For most the transition to a completely new way of life would be difficult. But six months after his injury Kleemann has a positive outlook and is already making plans for the future.

“It hasn’t been a hard transition, because I’m so lucky to be alive,” said Kleemann.

Once his recovery is complete, Kleemann will most likely be discharged from the Navy. Drawing inspiration from others he met with spinal cord injuries, he then plans to go to college to study the same thing that helped him so much. “I want to start going to school to study recreation therapy. I want to be able to work in a spinal cord unit and show the new injuries the tricks they showed me.

“They showed me that just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t do what you used to.”

For more photos of practice sessions for the Wheelchair Games please visit the Miami VA Facebook at the following link: 


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