Photo courtesy of U.S. Veterans Affairs

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Olympic Committee are making it easier for disabled athletes to train in their own communities, including in Colorado Springs.

The VA awarded $4.4 million in funds to 95-community based organizations in support of Paralympic sport and physical activity programs for disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces. Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation program, which works in partnership with the USOC, was among the recipients.

“This funding is already having a tremendous impact on disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces,” said Scott Blackmun, USOC CEO. “Through the USOC/Veterans Affairs partnership many community programs have been able to expand their programming and provide increased opportunities for veterans to participate.”

This is the second year the VA has provided funds to community organizations that support athletic programs for disabled veterans, said Michael Welch, VA program specialist, office of National Veterans Sports.

For years, the VA has sponsored athletic programs for disabled veterans, he said. But, this is the first time the agency has partnered with the USOC, which is hosting the 2012 Warrior Games.

The idea, he said, is to give disabled athletes an opportunity to train in their own communities and to possibly take their athleticism to the next level of competition as a U.S. Paralympian.

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In recent years, athletic programs for disabled veterans have become more accessible. And, each year, the number of athletic clubs for disabled athletes grows, Welch said.

“In the first year there were maybe 70 clubs, now there are more than 140 clubs – and still growing,” Welch said.

Congress authorized the funds for the community based organizations that support disabled veterans through 2013, but there is a bill under discussion to extend the funding to 2018, he said.

In Colorado, nine organizations were awarded grants that range from $2,500 to $500,000.

The grant program is a way for public-private partnerships to share funds and extend programs, said Charlie Huebner, USOC chief of Paralympics.

The USOC and Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation partnered to launch a Paralympics Sports Club three years ago.

“By partnering with the city, the USOC and VA, can cost efficiently develop programs where we all share the cost,” he said. “It’s a great example of public private resources.”

About 240 athletes are expected to participate in the 2012 Paralympics Games in London in August, and of those 15 percent are veterans, Huebner said.

In addition, the USOC is hosting the Warrior Games in April in Colorado Springs. More than 200 wounded, ill and injured soldiers and veterans are expected to participate in the Warrior Game’s seven sports including archery, cycling, shooting, and sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field and wheelchair basketball.

The games started in 2010 as an introduction to Paralympics sports for injured service members and veterans.

The competition, which will be hosted by the USOC, is also supported by the Department of Defense, the VA, USO, Fisher House Foundation and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

“You have a young man who serves his country and he comes home in a wheelchair, and something as simple as being able to ski with his friends – research shows that regular participation in physical activity has a positive effect on rehabilitation,” Huebner said. “We want to make sure there is programming available for veterans.”