Adaptive, Paralympic sports offer endless opportunities for wounded warriors

Photo of Paralympic fencing competition

Fencing is just one of several lesser known Paralympic sports available for wounded warriors and recovering Service members, including those with limb loss and spinal cord injury.

Regular exercise and physical activity are key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and can also help improve the recovery process for many recovering Service members and wounded warriors. And, while traditional sports such as cycling, running and golf are a great way to get and stay fit, the range of adaptive sports is much broader. One way to get into the spirit of Total Force Fitness Month is to consider a new hobby or adaptive sport. We’ve prepared a list of options to get you started. And don’t forget to watch out for them at this year’s Paralympic competition in London!


Paralympic fencing was introduced in 1953 and has been a part of Paralympic competition since 1960. The sport is open to competitors with injuries and disabilities including amputation or limb loss, spinal cord injuries and other injuries that require the use of a wheelchair. The sport is also open to competitors who have cerebral palsy, a brain injury or who have suffered a stroke.

To compete, participants sit in wheelchairs that are fixed to the ground. They can duck, turn and lean in order to avoid their opponent’s blows, but at no point can competitors lift out of their chair. The first competitor to five touches wins, and opponents play for the best of three rounds.

Fencing is open to both men and women, and competition can occur as an individual or on a team.


Goalball is a sport designed specifically for the blind and visually impaired. Competitors, participating in teams of three, take turns throwing the ball to the opposite end of the court and into the opponent’s goal. The ball makes a noise when it moves so competitors can locate it easily, and the court has tactile markings so competitors know where they are and what direction they are facing. All participants also wear eye masks to help ensure the same level of visual obstruction.

Photo of visually impaired athletes competing in goalball.

Goalball is designed specifically for athletes with visual impairments. Because the ball makes noise when it moves, spectator silence is critical to the game.

Goalball was invented in 1946. It was played as an exhibition sport during the 1972 Paralympic Games and became an official part of the Paralympics in 1976. The sport is open to both men and women.


Boccia has been part of the Paralympics since 1984. It was originally designed for athletes with cerebral palsy, but is now open to all athletes with severe disabilities. Athletes can play as individuals or on teams of three pairs.

Participants throw, kick or use an assistive device to propel leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball, known as the jack.  Each individual player is provided with six balls for the match. The sport is played indoors on a smooth, flat surface and requires great coordination, accuracy and concentration, as well as the ability to strategize.

Rules for how many balls are thrown vary by the type of disability. Participants in boccia are generally those with severe locomoter skills, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, high-level spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and arthrogyropsis.

Table tennis

Table tennis was part of the inaugural Paralympic Games in 1960. It includes competition for both men and women, as well as individuals and teams. The rules follow the traditional rules of the International Table Tennis Federation, but have been modified slightly to accommodate wheelchairs. Competitors play to 11 points, with the winner taking the best of five games.

Other competitions for table tennis include the European Championships, Pan American Championships, All-Africa Games, Far East Games and South Pacific Games.


Paratriathlon will be introduced as a brand-new sport in the 2016 Games, scheduled for Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The competition will include a 750 meter swim, a 20 km cycle and a 5 km run. It is open to both men and women.

Paratriathlon athletes will be divided into six classifications:

  • Handcycle: Open to paraplegics, quadriplegics, double leg amputees and competitors impaired by polio. These competitors are permitted to use hand cycles for the biking portion and racing wheelchairs for the run.
  • Severe leg impairment: Open to competitors with above the knee amputations. These competitors must bike and run using their prosthesis and may also run using crutches.
  • Les Autre: Open to competitors with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, double amputees and those with paralysis of multiple limbs. These athletes may run and bike with braces or prosthesis if needed.
  • Arm impairment: Open to competitors with paralysis, as well as above and below the elbow amputees or those with impairment in both upper limbs. These athletes may use a prosthesis or sling on the bike and/or run.
  • Slight leg impairment: This category includes below the knee amputees. Competitors can bike or run with prosthesis.
  • Visual impairment: Competitors in this category must be legally blind. A same sex handler is required for the entire event. Competitors and their guides will be tethered together for the swim and run, and will complete the cycling portion of the event on a tandem bike.

The possibilities for adaptive sports truly are endless, and there is a sport for everyone! To learn more about the Paralympics and Paralympic sports, visit the U.S. Paralympics website. You can also find information about the U.S. Olympic Committee Military and Veteran Programs, contact the adaptive sports coordinator at your Military Treatment Facility, or visit the Department of Veterans Affairs website for more information about the VA’s adaptive sports program, including information about the sports club nearest to you.