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Conyers resident a dedicated participant in Veterans Wheelchair Games

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Conyers resident Donald Young displays the medals he won in the 2011 National Veteran Wheelchair Games held recently in Pittsburgh.

Donald Young rides in his motorized wheelchair through the halls of the Olivia Haydel Senior Center, and out the front doors. He parks himself next to a bench at the patio entrance to the center, making sure not to block the way.

He's setting himself up for an interview, and halfway through the discussion he gently chides this reporter for holding the doors to the senior center open for him. He can get through the doors by himself, he said.

"I don't let being paralyzed hold me back," said Young, who spends two days a week at the center.

A testament to that drive for independence is Young's recent victories in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Held in Pittsburgh this past August, the games provide a venue for veterans who use wheelchairs to compete in sports.

The annual event attracts some 600 veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations or neurological problems, and is the largest wheelchair sports event in the world.

In his sixth year of participation, Young, 72, competed in discus, javelin, motorized slalom, powerchair 200 and weightlifting. He earned a silver medal in the slalom and a bronze in the javelin.

Over the years, he's won over 25 medals, which he gives away to his 17 grandchildren.

"Something for them to remember me by," said Young.

For people with disabilities, staying active is essential to good health, said Young.

"We're trying to encourage all people with disabilities to become involved with exercise or sports. Your body deteriorates if you don't use it," said Young.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., young joined the Marines in his early 20s and served in the military for four years between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

He then worked for the U.S. Postal Service for six years, followed by a job with the New York Transit Authority in 1970, where he assumed duties as a subway train conductor and then train dispatcher.

Young retired from the Transit Authority in 1998 after a 28-year career.

A year later, a virus called transverse myelitis attacked Young's immune system, damaging his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

After years of therapy, Young regained use of his hands. He learned skills like how to operate a motorized wheelchair and how to dress himself using specialized sticks to pick and put on clothing. He moved out of the therapeutic nursing home environment and into an independent living community.

"The hard part was changing the sheets," quipped Young. "Now, I can do just about everything other people can do."

Several of Young's six children attended college in Atlanta and settled in the metro area. Young moved from New York to east metro Atlanta in January and now lives in Conyers with his girlfriend, Gwen Bomair.

A member of Fairfield Baptist Church in Lithonia, Young said that while he lay in the hospital trying to recover from his illness, he didn't think of himself much, but rather he prayed for the other patients around him.

"I felt so bad, but I kept God on my mind," said Young. "I never asked God 'Why me?' Better me than someone else who couldn't handle it."