by Jonathan Weaver
A local wheelchair athlete kept his medal streak going a few weeks ago.
John Kellner, 64 of Manor Township, won two gold medals during the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games August 12-17 in Philadelphia.
Kellner – a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1967-71 during the Vietnam War – originally learned about the games while undergoing rehabilitation at the VA Butler facility. Shortly after his return, Kellner broke his back in a motorcycle crash and his condition has worsened since – and despite 13 surgeries, has been unable to walk since 1999.
“I started (the Wheelchair Games) in Pittsburgh in 2011 – where I got a gold medal in archery. Once I started, I got hooked on it and I’ve been going every year,” Kellner said. “I started training for next year already.”
An archer during hunting seasons, Kellner had not taken up archery competitively since the Wheelchair Games. He won another gold medal to add to his collection a few weeks ago, using a recurve bow given to him by coach and friend Tom Hutchinson three years ago.
“It gets my mind off of being in the chair and equal to other people,” Kellner said. “I live with chronic pain 24/7, but whenever I’m working out or shooting archery, the pain’s still there but it’s in the back of my mind – not right up front knocking me down. It’s good therapy.”
Kellner achieved a personal-best score during the archery competition, where athletes shoot six rounds at 50 meters.
Bowling and Archery Coach Tom Hutchinson of Rural Valley – who attended Kittanning Senior High with Kellner – said he was impressed with Kellner’s results.
“He’s progressed quite-a-bit,” Hutchinson said. “He did really well (at the Wheelchair Games) – better than I expected in archery.”
After training nearly every weekday at King’s Lanes in Kittanning or at the Richard G. Snyder YMCA or Ford City football field, Kellner competed in the maximum number of events he could – five – including track, bowling, javelin, archery and weightlifting. He also earned a gold medal in weightlifting for lifting the most in his weight class.
This year, Kellner competed on “Team Kellner” in honor of his brother, Jim “Butch” – who died nearly a year ago – in front of about eight family members supporting him, including his two sisters, Jill and Judy, two cousins (including one who drove from the state of Florida) and two nieces and their families.
His family surprised him with orange “Team Kellner” T-shirts – showing a picture of cartoon character Popeye “All Pumped Up”.
“This year was in honor of my brother, who passed away September 8 last year very unexpectedly,” Kellner said. “My sisters got together and had these made up. Those shirts were really a hit – everybody noticed them after the week.
“I was just blown away with all the support and the shirts – it was just awesome.”
A past coal mine mechanic and certified welder, Kellner was financially sponsored and supported through the Keystone Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and received $300 through the Cowansville American Legion.
“Without their help, I wouldn’t be able to afford to go on a fixed income,” Kellner said. “The room alone this time was $1,200 for a week.”
Nearly 630 wheelchair athletes competed – including one from each state, Puerto Rico and Great Britain.
He hopes to compete in more than just the 100-and 200-meter races next year utilizing a three-wheel chair to compete in other races. The first time he tried the track events was during the Buckeye Wheelchair Games in Geneva, Ohio this past May.
Kellner now has eight total medals – four from archery. He was disappointed he wasn’t able to win another medal in bowling, but is already looking forward to next year’s Games in Dallas.
“It wasn’t my best bowing performance, but there’s always next year,” Kellner said. “All I ever do is the do the best I can – if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If it’s not, well, I had a good time trying.”