GREENFIELD — The cancer that claimed Mike Pyle’s leg is attacking his lungs, but it hasn’t touched his competitive spirit.
Pyle will compete this summer in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Though he is still battling Stage 4 cancer caused by exposure to toxins in the Gulf War, the veteran has summoned the strength to dabble in something that takes a lot of it.
Sure, fatigue kicks in every evening. And yes, he has plenty of bad days.
But it takes a lot to dampen the enthusiasm of the Greenfield dad who has found sports to be therapeutic, both physically and emotionally.
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Pyle doesn’t normally use a wheelchair, so preparing for the games has an even sharper learning curve.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m gonna try,” Pyle said.
“Even if I finish last every day at every event, at least I’m trying.”
Pyle’s story was first told in the Daily Reporter in 2012: A rare form of soft-tissue cancer required his leg to be amputated in 2010, and he found out shortly thereafter that the cancer had returned in full force to his lungs.
A backlog of paperwork at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a government shutdown at the time put the young family in financial limbo. Amid multiple surgeries, the Greenfield community stepped up with generous — and often anonymous — donations.
Ultimately, the VA recognized Pyle’s military service in the Persian Gulf War 24 years ago as the reason for his cancer and is now paying for his medical procedures.
These days, Pyle is taking in life: spending precious moments with his family and training for his first Olympic-style competition in Dallas this summer.
The 35th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games will bring roughly 500 veterans together for basketball, archery, softball, swimming and more. Pyle will compete in track and field events.
This is his first competition: already a participant in golf and snowboarding outings for veterans, Pyle was encouraged to give the wheelchair games a try.
It’s the first time Pyle has used a wheelchair since his leg was amputated. He normally gets around with the aid of a prosthesis.
But Pyle is up for the challenge.
“I just wanna go down and have fun and see how these guys do their daily routine,” Pyle said.
Pyle will be competing against others who are bound to wheelchairs by paralysis, cerebral palsy and more. As an amputee, Pyle qualified for the event and was given a sports wheelchair by the VA two weeks ago to train.
Pyle’s approach to the obstacles he faces attract attention most everywhere he goes.
“He just has a great attitude,” said Vickie Lincks, executive director of the Kentucky-Indiana chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America.
The organization is paying for Pyle’s trip through community donations.
Lincks said while there are many inspiring stories at the games every year, Pyle is especially uplifting because of his ongoing battle with cancer.
“It’s not easy for anyone that has suffered illness or injury to tackle sporting events,” Lincks said. “(He) has the drive to travel across the country and compete with other people. For him to show that initiative and that drive, it definitely sets him apart.”
There are three other veterans from Indiana competing and a total of 12 on the Kentucky-Indiana team. This is the 35th annual games, and Lincks said veterans enjoy camaraderie and become inspired by meeting others who are like them, facing challenges.
“It’s that shared experience of both the disability and competitiveness that makes it special,” she said. “They make friends from around the country. They share connections, they learn about other activities, they maintain friendships. It’s a really eye-opening experience.”
Krysty Pyle joined a gym with her husband back in September and said they’ve both noticed benefits physically and emotionally from dedicating more time to fitness.
Mike’s drive for a gold medal didn’t surprise his wife.
“He’s a sports fanatic; he has been since I’ve known him,” Krysty said. “He’s always wanted to do this kind of stuff. He’s going to prove to people that he can do it.”
The couple even work out on weekends with their children, Mallory, 9, and Preston, 4. The kids like to take a spin in dad’s new wheelchair.
The entire family will spend the week in Texas watching Mike compete, and the Pyles hope to stay a few more days for some sight-seeing.
Still facing regular treatments for lung cancer, Mike says some days are hard, but he’s holding on.
And he positivity remains steadfast.
“I can’t complain,” he shrugs.
Krysty Pyle said she’s still amazed at her husband’s attitude on life.
“A lot of people who were given the prognosis he has, they would not get up and go. A lot of people would he laying in bed, feeling sorry for themselves,” she said.
With weighted gloves and at least five days of training a week, Pyle is building his upper body strength. He will also go to a wheelchair basketball camp in Louisville this month to gain more insight on how to use his new set of wheels.
A Navy veteran, Pyle said his looking forward to a week of friendly trash talk with folks from other branches of the military. Not only will it be a unique experience to compete with others who are disabled, he said, but he’s looking forward to bonding with veterans who know exactly what he’s gone through.
“We’re all one. We can sit down and talk with a cold beer, and you don’t have to explain everything,” he said. “We’ve all been there.”
Pyle said he’s especially enjoyed meeting younger veterans who have come back from war injured, and he hopes he can encourage them to stay active.
“It gives them hope to keep on pushing,” he said. “You can’t let this stuff bother ya.”
Pyle, who has played basketball, football and softball over the years, said he’s going for track and field events so he can get a new experience.
“I want a variety, a more broad range of competition,” he said. “For the first time, I want to do as much as I can.”
Greenfield resident Mike Pyle will compete in June at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Here are a few facts:
Wheelchair sports had their beginning in the aftermath of World War II when young, disabled veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals. In 1980 the VA established a Recreation Therapy Service and has since touted wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating veterans with disabilities.
The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held in 1981 in Virginia with 74 veterans. It has grown over the years and has been held in cities across the country. In 2014 there were 535 participants. The games are presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, with numerous corporate and community sponsors.
This year the games will be held June 21-26 in Dallas. Games include archery, basketball, bowling, softball, swimming, weightlifting and hand-cycling. Pyle will be competing in track and field events.
The Kentucky-Indiana chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America is sponsoring Pyle’s trip. To learn more about the organization or to donate, visit www.kipva.org.