BY MIKE MERINO
Richard “The Hammer” Lilien has been hitting it extra hard at the gym as he prepares for the competition of his life.What makes this World War II Army veteran unique is he`s 90 years old, a quadriplegic and lives full time in the spinal cord injury center at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa.
Lilien, along with 21 senior veterans from Tampa Bay, are training for the National Veterans Golden Age Games in Biloxi, Miss., on May 7-11. Competing will be 850 veteran athletes from more than 40 states. The games are open to veterans age 55 or older who receive health care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The goal is to encourage
older vets to exhibit sportsmanship, dedication, leadership and an active lifestyle year-round.
“Winning gold is the dream for all these athletes, however, only a few will bring one back,” said Bernadette Hoffman, Haley recreational therapist and veterans coach. “But along
the way they will form new friendships, overcome personal obstacles, and become mentally and physically stronger than they were before.”
A successful real estate executive from Naples, Lilien never imagined at age 86 he would end up paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
“I took an accidental combination of a prescribed pain medication for a foot injury, along with my usual late afternoon martini,” Lilien said. “It caused me to black out, fall on my head and it broke my neck.”
The National Veterans Golden Age Games is the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States, and the only national multi-event sports and recreational seniors’ competition program designed to improve the quality of life for all older Veterans, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The games are comprised of 19 different sports ranging from archery to golf to competitive swimming and also feature an interactive Health and Wellness Exposition.
Lilien, who first competed in the 2016 Detroit games, hopes to compete in bocce ball, shuffleboard, air rifle, and bowling.
“I won three medals in Detroit and I`m aiming for all gold this year,” he said. “I`m ready and I know I can do it.”
The Hammer is an “incomplete quadriplegic,” which means he has limited use of his hands and arms. He is aided in his sporting endeavors by a therapist or caregiver. When he first had his accident, he was not able to perform any movement. Through hard work and determination, he can now perform small functions like feeding himself.
When asked how he got his nickname, Lilien replied, “At 75, I could hit a golf ball farther than any of those youngsters at the golf course. They were so impressed they started calling me The Hammer, and it stuck.” Richard Lilien tosses a bocce ball in preparation for the National Veterans Golden Age Games.