Doris Merrill will be competing in four disciplines at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which started on July 30

By Jason Duaine Hahn
August 01, 2018 01:02 PM
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Credit: Courtesy: Doris Merrill

At 94 years old, Doris Merrill still remembers the first time she used her motorized wheelchair to outrace other seniors at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, nearly two decades ago

“My heart was beating so loud the first time I was in an event, I thought, everyone can hear it,” Merrill tells PEOPLE. “And I won the slalom, and I didn’t know I won it. I was so glad. I tried it and I did it, I did it. I wish my mother and father and everybody was there to see I did it.”

Merrill, who joined the Navy at 20 years old during World War II, is the oldest person competing in the 38th iteration of the games, which kicked off on Monday in Orlando, Florida.

She and more than 600 disabled athletes will be facing off in 20 events over six days, and Merrill will be going for the gold in four disciplines — bowling, motorized slalom, motorized rally and boccia, the last of which she has never played before.

“I’m gonna do my doggone best, if I don’t, it’s alright, I’m there,” says Merrill, of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. “I compete, I see my friends and the food is always good!”

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Doris Merrill
| Credit: National Veterans Wheelchair Games

In the slalom and rally, Merrill and others will maneuver their wheelchairs through a series of orange cones, racing to the finish line. For Merrill, who was diagnosed with cervical myelopathy in her neck after sustaining an injury in boot camp — and then, later, with multiple sclerosis — capturing the thrill of competition is something she is grateful to have while still being largely dependent on her wheelchair.

“You can’t believe what the wheelchair games mean to me and to everyone. I’m not alone,” she says. “I can do these things and everyone you talk to, they don’t think they can do it. But I always say, if it moves, move it. Just move it. Maybe it’s just your big toe, but move it.”

Before participating in her first games in 1999, Merrill had been feeling sad about her health. A recreational therapist recommended she join adaptive sports.

“I was in pretty bad straits,” she says. “But the men at the VA encouraged me to go, and I’m so glad that I went.”

There are about 4 million veterans who have a disability connected to their time in the service. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, adaptive sports can be used as part of the healing process for injured or disabled veterans.

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Doris Merrill
| Credit: Courtesy: Doris Merrill

Being around other people with impairments — such as in the U.S. Paralympics or the Invictus Games — can build a sense of confidence and acceptance of their disability for veterans, the University of Pittsburgh adds. The Paralyzed Veterans of America help to put on the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in association with the VA.

“If you are feeling negative and you go to the games, you turn positive,” Merrill says. “You see 550 people in wheelchairs, they’re your comrades. The camaraderie is unbelievable, it’s an experience you can’t forget.”

Since her debut at the games, Merrill has taken home some 70 medals over the last two decades (and she says she gives away many of them to members of her nursing home who aren’t able to compete).

For disabled veterans and seniors who may be considering adaptive sports, but who remain on the fence, the ever-tenacious Merrill says to just get out there and make it happen.

“Talk to yourself. You have that inner voice. I had that inner voice but it was saying don’t go, or poor you, what if you get hurt? I don’t think of that now,” she says. “All I can say is never quit. You quit, your finished. You have to do what you have to do, but only you can do it.”