“Thankfully we’re not getting as many kids blown up as we used to, but there are more avenues for the veterans to get some of those financial burdens lifted,” said Nico Marcolongo, the senior manager of Operation Rebound, a program for veterans and emergency medical workers affiliated with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He added: “If all things are equal, it’s harder for a nonveteran to get their start and get their resources than it would be for a veteran.”
Schieber, who served in the Air Force from 1985 to 1992, has no patience for those who criticize the imbalance, but he is aware of it. The uneven playing field has ramifications on recruiting, roster composition and team dynamics; Schieber suggested that in the past he needed to quell resentment over the discrepancy. None of the five curlers on the 2018 team, two of whom served in the Army, indicated in interviews that there was anything close to a rift.
“That athlete can train almost full time, in effect,” said Schieber, acknowledging that the athlete might then improve at a faster rate than a civilian. “We’re not paying him to be an athlete, but he’s getting totally subsidized by a third party, the U.S. government. He can live a pretty good financial life. He doesn’t have to have that second job. It’s hugely unlevel, but I don’t care. If you’re a veteran, take every penny you can get.”
The biggest help comes from the monthly allowance provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is given only to athletes who are training or competing at a high level as defined by their sport’s governing body. A V.A. spokesman said 16 of the 18 veterans on the United States team here received an allowance.
Based on the number of dependents in the athlete’s family, that monthly stipend ranges from $617 to more than $1,100. Any veteran who receives the allowance, then, automatically makes at least $7,400 more than a civilian on the same team.
Before they are eligible to earn this extra money, veterans first must be exposed to a sport. From his experience, Schieber said, veterans who want to participate in outreach camps around the country can have their expenses covered by V.A. hospitals or private organizations. Then they must unearth sources of funding that abet their continued involvement.
Often, veterans turn to organizations like Operation Rebound, which awards an average of $1,500 in need-based grants to athletes, regardless of skill level, whose applications are accepted, and the Semper Fi Fund.
Jimmy Sides, a former Marine, was introduced to snowboarding through the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, which offered trips to places like Breckenridge, Colo. Calling his advantage “almost unfair,” Sides said Semper Fi provided almost all of his funding to compete, paying for gear, registration costs and race fees.
“I feel bad for the guy that loses his leg in a motorcycle accident or the cancer patient that loves snowboarding and wants to do this but has to struggle and grind,” Sides said.
On the curling team, Justin Marshall, who did not serve in the military but said that many members of his family did, works 40 hours a week as an architectural associate and spends about 20 hours practicing. Last year, he took about two months of unpaid leave and was responsible for costs of domestic travel.
In an interview at the Utica Curling Club in Whitesboro, N.Y., before the Paralympics, Marshall said that his situation was hard, but that he would never hold that against his teammates who were veterans.
“Almost every guy in my family served in the military, and I probably would have followed except I had my spinal cord stroke when I was 12,” he said. “It helps them so I can’t be mad at them for it. I wish I had that extra funding, but I don’t, so I just try to find another way to take care of that.”
His teammate Steve Emt, who served in the Army, teaches seventh-grade math in Connecticut, where, to his eternal gratitude, the school board grants him time off to compete. Emt, a former walk-on basketball player at the University of Connecticut who became a paraplegic from a car accident in 1995, recruits veterans to curling.
“I was told that I could be a Paralympian,” Emt said. “Being a young sport, it’s a big selling point. The chances of vets making the basketball team are slim. So, come curl. If we can tell them, ‘Hey, we’ve got a trip to the U.S. Open in New York that could be fully funded for you because you’re a veteran, come on up and play and learn the sport,’ they’ll be hooked.”
Rick Adams, the United States Olympic Committee’s chief of Paralympics, agreed that infrastructure and support for veterans across the nascent stages of an athlete’s development were beneficial, but he hesitated to say that could be parlayed into an increased presence on the American team.
“It’s a possibility, but most of the time what you find is that they may not have been in a sport for a long time,” Adams said. “I think there’s a balance between someone who’s been participating for a long period of time and someone who’s been in the military for a long time and then they’re in a situation where they’re Paralympic-eligible and take up a sport. I don’t know I would extrapolate out to say that they’re at an advantage.”
The U.S.O.C. bases how much money to award sports in the Olympics and Paralympics on many factors, but above all success. It is unlikely that the wheelchair curlers, who have yet to medal since the sport was added in 2006 and finished in last place here out of 12 nations, will receive more money than in the past. And so Schieber, to boost the team’s fortunes in the future, might be more likely to recruit as many military veterans as possible: He knows that they’d be more likely to afford the expenses to compete.
“If I’m looking at two athletes that are absolutely equal, does it fall into my mind that the veteran may have the better opportunity for funding and may be long-term a better athlete down the road?” Schieber said. “You hate to say it. That’s a rhetorical question. I can’t give you an answer.”
An answer could come as soon as 2020, at the Tokyo Paralympics. The proportion of veterans has steadily increased in the summer Paralympics, too, from 7.51 percent (16 of 213) of the United States roster in Beijing 10 years ago to 12.4 percent (33 of 267) two years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
Those numbers are not quite what they were 70 years ago at the Stoke Mandeville Games, of course. But maybe the United States Paralympic team is on its way.
Continue reading the main story