By Daryl Bell
Express-News Staff Writer
Rarely does Ernie Dimeglio experience a day when he isn't challenged. A victim of multiple sclerosis, the 53-year-old Lakewood, N.J., resident gradually suffered the loss of his mobility.
So he figures his first visit to San Antonio to participate in the 20th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games shouldn't be too difficult.
"I'm here to have fun and win a couple of medals," said Dimeglio, who will be competing in pool, bowling and air rifle. "I've never competed in anything like this before so I don't know what to really expect. In the past, I've wanted to come, but some reason or another, didn't. This time, I put it in my mind that I was going to be here."
Dimeglio is one of more than 750 disabled veterans who have come to the Alamo City to compete in the nation's largest wheelchair sporting event.
The Wheelchair Games, which begin today and end Saturday, will feature disabled athletes competing in 17 sports such as archery, track and field, and swimming.
American Airlines played a big part in getting Dimeglio to Texas. The airline chartered Dimeglio and 152 other members of the Eastern Region of the Paralyzed Veterans of America from New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport to San Antonio on a specially equipped plane.
"Oh, the flight was good," said Lou DiDonna, another competitor from the Eastern Region. "The food was excellent and the service was first class all the way. They really went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. It made you feel very good."
American Airlines estimates that it handles 1.5 million people with disabilities each year.
In 1994, the company created a customer-based Disability Advisory Panel, a group of disabled advocates who meet periodically to discuss and make recommendations about American's service to disabled customers.
"We take a lot of pride in that," said Kim Poppke, American Airlines' senior analyst for airport services. "The disabled want to fly. They don't want to be limited. We try to look at the situations that may pop up and try to make them easier. We want them to enjoy their flight."
The flight Dimeglio and DiDonna were on was the largest single group to arrive at San Antonio International Airport for the games. According to Poppke, it took more than two hours to get everyone on the plane. Helping to load passengers were members of the New York City Fire Department. Helping to unload them were several volunteers, including members of the San Antonio Fire Department.
"It was great having them both available to give us a hand," Poppke said. "We couldn't have done it without their help."
Dimeglio brought his son, Anthony, with him. Like his father, he too is looking forward to the competition.
"I think he's going to do well," said Anthony, 20. "He's going at this
in the right way. I've never seen my father walk. Hopefully, he'll be able
to leave here with a medal. It would mean so much to him."