For 94-year-old Doris Merrill, the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is about more than the 70 medals she’s earned over the years.
“You can’t believe what the wheelchair games mean to me and to everyone. I’m not alone,” Merrill, who joined the Navy during World War II, told PEOPLE. “I compete, I see my friends and the food is always good!”
Merrill is one of the 600 disabled athletes who turned out for the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games hosted in Orlando from July 30 to August 4. While her events include bocce ball, motorized slalom and motorized rally, participants will be vying for a medal in 19 different events including wheelchair basketball, softball, swimming, cycling, power lifting and trap shooting.
“I’m gonna do my doggone best, if I don’t it’s alright, I’m there,” Merrill, who was diagnosed with cervical myelopathy in her neck during boot camp, and then multiple sclerosis (MS) while pregnant with her first child, told PEOPLE.
MS is an unpredictable, disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts communication between the brain and body. According to the National MS Society, the progress and severity of the disease remains unpredictable, but it is two to three times more common in women than it is in men. The most common symptoms include overwhelming fatigue, visual disturbances and difficulty with mobility.
For Merrill, her diagnosis came as a shock, and led to denial. She said she was unable to hold her son for the first three months of his life, and had to overcome temporary blindness. According to her bio, she went on to complete college and enjoy a teaching career, and was later introduced to adaptive sports by a recreational therapist.
“I can do these things and everyone you talk to, they don’t think they can do it,” she told PEOPLE. “But I always say, if it moves, move it. Just move it. Maybe it’s just your big toe, but move it.”
Merrill, who was 20 when she joined the Navy, served as a transcriptionist through the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program. She had high-security clearance and was present for strategic meetings with high-ranking officials, according to her athlete bio page.
“I never even told my husband, who was a Marine that was guarding us at the time,” she said on her bio.
She said being among the oldest to compete in the Games helps her act as a mother figure to younger athletes struggling to adjust.
“I love to play,” she said in her bio. “I love to join in the Games. But, if I see someone having trouble, I don’t try to pass them up. It’s alright. I’m like a mother to them. I’m the oldest. And I don’t care. I just, want to mother them… if they want me to.”