Emotional Support between Veterans Still Key to World T.E.A.M. Sports’ 1998 Vietnam Challenge

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Non-profit World T.E.A.M. Sports' 16-day, 1,250-mile Vietnam Challenge cross-country bicycle and hand cycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City brought together a diverse team of injured United States and Vietnam veterans. Seventeen years after releasing a documentary chronicling the ride, Chicago’s Kartemquin Films reports the powerful emotional connection between these former enemy combatants was the ride's real accomplishment.

1998 Vietnam Challenge veterans.

Vietnam Challenge team members gather in Vietnam during the January 1998 ride. World T.E.A.M. Sports archive photograph.

The experience gave me a new-found respect for the military and the sacrifices these individuals make and the often conflicted moral, intellectual, patriotic - very human values that allow them to make these sacrifices.

Seventeen years following the ground-breaking Vietnam Challenge from non-profit World T.E.A.M. Sports, film makers that chronicled the cooperative bicycle and hand cycle ride across Vietnam by former combatants report the powerful emotional connection between veterans was the real story of the event.

Chronicled in the award-winning 1998 documentary “Vietnam, Long Time Coming” by Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, the Vietnam Challenge brought together 39 veterans from the United States and 14 veterans from Vietnam for a 1,250 mile bicycle and hand cycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Like all World T.E.A.M. Sports events, the Vietnam Challenge teamed persons with disabilities with able-bodied participants. Together, the riders journeyed across a nation that had experienced decades of war and conflict until 1975. Nearly a quarter century later, the Challenge was the first joint sporting activity between the former warring nations.

“What makes ‘Vietnam, Long Time Coming’ a strong film is that the distinction between disabled and non-disabled becomes eclipsed by the real story,” said David E. Simpson, Kartemquin’s accomplished film editor who reviewed nearly 250 hours of footage captured by cinematographers during the 16 day event. “The emotional journey that the participants go through, which unites them as human beings” is the ultimate success of the Challenge.

Created by World T.E.A.M. Sports co-founder Stephen Whisnant, the Vietnam Challenge was inspired by improving diplomatic and business relations between the two nations in the early 1990s. Following a successful world bicycle ride by the non-profit organization, Whisnant and his colleagues decided the time was right for the Challenge.

With strong corporate support and federal government assistance, World T.E.A.M. Sports coordinated not only the logistics of a long ride in an overseas country, but also worked to create long-lasting benefits. Working with the non-profit Veterans for America, World T.E.A.M. Sports provided significant funding to Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital for an orthotic brace and rehabilitation clinic to serve regional residents. Prior to the arrival of the American veterans in Hanoi for the ride, a team of doctors offered diagnostic and consulting services for Hanoi residents with disabilities. It was a “huge success” as a humanitarian event, said Whisnant.

“For me personally, the experience gave me a new-found respect for the military and the sacrifices these individuals make and the often conflicted moral, intellectual, patriotic - very human values that allow them to make these sacrifices,” recalled Adam Singer, a film co-producer.

Editing the documentary following the return of the American participants from Vietnam, Simpson recalled the complications in telling the story of the ride south from Hanoi. “We were very keen to flesh out some of the more difficult, complex, emotional aspects of the ride: the conflicted feelings, the struggles to reconcile past pain and fear with the current potential for brotherhood between the vets and the Vietnamese civilians. While the healing and dealing with the trauma was clearly part of the intent of World T.E.A.M. Sports in organizing the ride and commissioning the film, these aspects of the project were the most important to us, the filmmakers. We wanted to push the usual boundaries of broadcast television by mixing the celebratory and symbolic aspects of the ride with a high quotient of the messier, harder to live-through and harder-to-watch moments.”

Throughout the ride, American and Vietnam veterans met with local residents and groups. For some rural residents, this was an initial opportunity to meet with veterans who had clashed so bitterly during the war. At times, emotions were high for veterans from either side. Kartemquin’s cameras captured many of these passionate moments, as veterans became overcome by memories of past colleagues and tragic events.

“The challenge we had as filmmakers was trying to make a film that was more than a simple sponsored profile of the World T.E.A.M. Sports organization and a particular ride,” said Singer. “We wanted the film to touch on some of the core complex emotional and political issues and wounds that sat below the surface of the ‘ride’.”

“Vietnam, Long Time Coming” debuted in multiple film festivals in late 2008 and was well-received by veterans groups and the public. Following a brief theatrical release, NBC television broadcast the film nationally on December 26, 2008, with sportscaster Dick Enberg hosting.

The documentary provided Kartemquin Films artistic recognition and several awards from festivals. The Directors Guild of America presented co-director Jerry Blumenthal with the award for Best Directing in 2008. An Emmy from the National Society of Television Arts and Sciences for Outstanding Program Achievement provided more respect. For World T.E.A.M. Sports, the film offered national attention for a growing non-profit organization that was chartered only five years earlier. It soon would host the first Face of America ride as a cross-country journey, a legacy that continues to this day with a Washington to Gettysburg ride and the Sea to Shining Sea cross-country rides with injured veterans.

“Getting to experience Vietnam in such a unique intimate way was especially rewarding,” said Singer. “I feel really lucky to have been part of this journey and project.”

About World T.E.A.M. Sports
World T.E.A.M. Sports is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization chartered in North Carolina and headquartered in Holbrook, New York. Since 1993, World T.E.A.M. Sports has organized athletic events for disabled and able bodied citizens – mountain climbing, white water rafting, biking, and more. Four things always happen at our events: (1) Disabled participants build self-confidence and physical fitness; (2) The disabled provide a role model for other disabled citizens, encouraging them to take up physical activities; (3) The disabled become a moving inspiration to other participants and to spectators when they see that disabled individuals can meet challenges beyond anyone’s imagination; and (4) The disabled and able-bodied participants learn to work as a team to overcome those challenges. World T.E.A.M. Sports changes lives through sports.

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Richard Rhinehart
World T.E.A.M. Sports
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