Warriors. Wheels. Hoops. Hope.

Participants in the Navy Wounded Warrior - Safe Harbor program at Naval Station Norfolk.  By Thé N. Pham / The Virginian-Pilot

Participants in the Navy Wounded Warrior - Safe Harbor program at Naval Station Norfolk. By Thé N. Pham / The Virginian-Pilot


After the headaches came at sea and her vision grew blurry back home, basketball seemed a long shot for Elizabeth Springer.

The Portsmouth-based Navy petty officer second class had surgery for stage 3 brain cancer in January.

On Thursday, she had a jersey – and a wheelchair.

Springer, 30, is one of nearly 20 wounded sailors and Coast Guard members at a camp this week learning how to play sports despite their disabilities.

The three-day adaptive sports camp is the largest that has been held at the naval base and is run by a program called Navy Wounded Warrior – Safe Harbor. The camps started at Ventura County Naval Base in California and expanded to the East Coast this year.

More than 1,100 men and women are enrolled in the program nationwide, which includes people wounded in combat, on duty or injured in accidents, as well as those with serious medical conditions.

The games are familiar: basketball, racquetball and tennis, among others.

The goal, said Lt. Megan Haydel, adaptive athletics coordinator, is ambitious: “opening their eyes to a new world.”

Sports help wounded sailors gain strength and endurance, find support, and stay active, said Patty Babb, a spokeswoman for Navy Wounded Warrior.

“It helps them get back in the game,” she said.

It did for Glenn Rogers, a 54-year-old from Newport News who played alongside the sailors.

He began playing with the Sun Wheelers, a Virginia Beach wheelchair basketball team, about five years ago. It broke up his daily routine and led him to sports he wouldn’t have tried if he hadn’t lost a leg to hereditary blood clots. He started to surf and play volleyball, tennis and racquetball.

Learning – or relearning – basketball on wheels isn’t easy.

Moving down the court, and shooting from so low, takes upper body strength. Dodging defenders and teammates is all but impossible. Following wheelchair-specific rules takes adjustment.

Springer said she was humbled by the challenges the sport poses now, years after she played on her high school’s varsity team.

But by the end of their scrimmage, she and her teammates had turned a slow start into a heated finale.

They shouted plays from the sidelines, rushed after loose balls and protested a referee’s calls. They cheered baskets, scrambled for rebounds and tried for a buzzer beater.

Springer wasn’t sure how to describe being back on the court. “It just feels amazing,” she said.

She enjoyed the sports so much Thursday she set a goal: Compete in the annual Warrior Games, which pit wounded service members from the U.S. and U.K. against one another.

Marlon Bevans, a retired petty officer second class from Norfolk, competed in swimming and shooting at the Warrior Games in Colorado in May. 

Basketball is important to him, too. He played as a child, and he looked up to Michael Jordan. Now, it helps keep his mind sharp.

It also gives him an escape. He was rear-ended on his motorcycle three years ago and spent two weeks in a coma.

He suffered brain injuries and has spent years in physical therapy. Strangers stare at the scars that run down his arm.

But when he’s playing basketball, none of it matters, he said.

“While I’m playing, I’m not injured. All of this,” he said, gesturing down his arm, “doesn’t exist.”

Originally published in The Virginian-Pilot, Aug. 4, 2013