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Q&A: What adaptive sports interest you?
Sports Participation After a Spinal Cord Injury
I'm a player for the wheelchair rugby team in Chicago. That's, that's all I do; it's a life. Wheelchair rugby is a wheelchair sport for people with dysfunction in all four extremities; the majority of the players are quadriplegic. It's a full contact sport, it's played in a basketball court, and it's a lot of fun — it's pretty rough.
I’ve tried every sport there probably is, tennis is my favorite. I actually have created a program in Atlanta to get new players involved in tennis, I’ve written a few grants and I have five program chairs. I hold clinics to get new players out and try to teach them tennis; it’s actually probably the biggest thing that got me out of depression. Just when I first saw it, watching these guys push a chair, hold a tennis racket, hit a tennis ball and it looked as good as anybody else, it was huge. And I was like “I got to try that.” And I found out how hard it was to actually get into tennis in Atlanta, but I did have somebody that reached out to me, and gave me a chair, and kind got me involved and loved it ever since. The best thing about tennis to me is I can go play anybody, I don’t have to play other chair players, I play in an able-body league. We have several chair leagues here, but it’s so big that I can pick up my chair, throw it in my car. There’s very minimal equipment—you have a chair, and a tennis racket and you can play. For sled hockey, you got to have ice time; you got to have the rink and everything else. So, to me it’s one of the easiest sports to do, and I actually help out a lot at Shepherd Center here and meet people that are going back to their hometown. And that’s actually how I ended up in able-body tennis because I kept on telling them, “you can go back to your community and play,” and I hadn’t done it and so I was like I’ve got to try this. And it’s been an experience because there’s a lot of differences as far as movement, but you can play an able-body and be competitive.
I love adaptive sports. I think my favorite is snow skiing. I’ve been snow skiing several times and it was so much fun. And it’s really great because like if you fall, your head goes in soft snow, you know. So, it’s good.
I knew sports were very big for him, so I have tried to get him into, he tried adaptive skiing. We went up to Push-to-Walk and he tried wheelchair rugby, which he enjoyed. He’s looking at, perhaps, doing some rowing down on the river. There are a lot of adaptive sports around.
I am going to the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, and I actually have a team that I’m a part of. And there’s nothing—I didn’t think I would ever be able to be a part of a team again, and it feels so good to just be a part of something. And nothing feels better than when I’m active, and healthy and feel good about myself.
I heard about this tournament in Chicago’s Navy Pier. It was an adaptive basketball demonstration, I showed up with my family, and I saw all these guys doing these amazing things in their wheelchair, from a wheelchair. And, I couldn’t see myself doing that, I wonder, you know, “We’re, I’m supposed to be fragile.” People were falling, but they were coming right back up by themselves, they were shooting three points. It was competitive because, you know, there was yelling, there was, like, competitive, you can feel that. And, that’s when I realized that I was missing out, that I never realized that I could be doing that from my able-bodied days that, you know, we’re, like, competitive—we’re guys, we have to do this—and I saw it in these guys, but they were just using a wheelchair. And then when they had a half time, or time out, they came back, they came towards their bench, and I was kind of there, and I was listening to the coach, and, “You guys keep doing this.” So, they weren’t being treated as disabled folks, like, “Oh you guys should try, we’re going to get a hug later on.” He was like, “You guys need to do this, and you, you, you, and you’re not trying.” I go, “But they’re in wheelchairs, why are you yelling at them?—Right?” And these guys turn around and won the game. Right, and after they game, they’re high five. And I go, “Wow, there’s team, there’s team in this community here, I wish I could be a part of this.” And then they approached me—“So what’s going on, what’s up with you, when are you going to come play? We practice such and such days over here.”— And I’m like, “No dude, I don’t do that, you know, I’m not like you, you know, I’m going to be ok. I’m waiting for that cure, that pill, the potion, whatever.”— “Come on man, just, here, call this guy up, right now we’re, this is a demo, but we’re playing, this summer, so softball season.” “Softball? Chicago 16-inch softball?”—“Yeah”—“In a wheelchair?” And I’m like, “these guys are nuts, I don’t know what they’re talking about.” So, I went to the practice, and they took me in right away—“Go ahead, go to second.”—“Wait a second, what do you mean ‘go to second’? What am I supposed to do on second? I’m in a wheelchair, I can’t do this.” I mean in a hospital chair, you know, I got my gloves, you know, I’m cool. I go to second and they started hitting at me, and throwing, and I go, “Whoa, this can be done.” And then from then on, it went to sled hockey. So, my favorite sport, adaptive sport in the world, is sled hockey. It’s something that I never thought I would be playing on the ice, and I got a great team, great folks; we’re the number one in the country today, 2010.
So, I play wheelchair rugby, I’ve been playing wheelchair rugby for the last five years. And for me, I guess making that transition into a manual chair, wheelchair rugby just kind of really spoke to me because it’s a quadriplegic-focused sport. I mean I knew that I could be good at it, and people were like, “well, you played basketball, why can’t you play basketball?” But a lot of people don’t understand that that’s a paraplegic sport, you have to have the hands, you have to have the triceps. So, playing wheelchair rugby kind of gave me the even playing field, something I could be good at. However, I didn’t know anything about it, so I had to have a huge learning curve, I mean, I’m still learning. It’s so much fun, so much fun.
A little bit of everything. The guys back home were trying to get me into basketball, which I played basketball before. But it’s so interesting that you don’t always connect with your previous things, or activities or hobbies. And since then, it was so interesting that I got into handcycling. And I was a runner before, I ran cross country in college and track and field, and one of my lifelong goals was to run a marathon. And I used to pray sometimes and ask God you know, “I still want to fulfill that, I still want to run a marathon. How can I do that?” And our rehabilitation hospital had a clinical trial that, exercise and disability, and the exercise that they did was hand cycling. And I got into hand cycling, and less than a year later, I did my first marathon. So, I completed my marathon.
I played wheelchair rugby. I played that for two years until we had our baby, and then I stopped playing it for a little bit. I try hand cycling here and there, I want to start hand cycling a little more, but I have done some other sports. There’s actually a baby boom on the wheelchair rugby team. After we had our child, a friend of ours just had twins, and then there’re two other people on the team, who have families pregnant currently. There’re going to be six babies in two years. And what has it done to the team? I don’t know, we’ll see!
I did try softball and I want to get back into it. I’m not a strong pusher in the chair, so I have to get a chair and really work on it at home a lot more. The people that you play with, no matter how slow I was or bad I was, they were always motivating. “Come on! Come on! You can do it.” You know, don’t worry about it!” Even though I kind of sometimes, I was like, “oh man, I’m holding the team back.” But I am going to try to get it and also try the adaptive shooting. It’s pretty much just a pellet air rifle. And I tried that out and I probably want to pursue that a little more because I was pretty good at that.
One of the biggest advances was hooking up with the sports program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. You know, I was never an athlete before...I was very sort of involved in working out, staying healthy before my injury. It was something I was interested in maintaining post-injury. So when I walked into the sports program and sort of learned that I can still do all these things I was doing before, it just sort of clicked. It was more important than I probably would have ever thought it, it sort of introduced me to a whole community of people who were disabled—who I learned so much from.
Hell, they all interest me, but the ones that I play are wheelchair rugby, wheelchair racing, and I do bass fishing tournament—but I don’t know if I would consider that an adaptive sport because like I do use different adaptations, but still I’m out there competing with able body people and stuff.
I found water skiing and I thought “oh, for going fast.” I have always loved motor cycles and going fast with the turns. Well, that works. Hot Atlanta summers, let me go swimming, that works. And so I got involved in water skiing, specifically through Shepherd’s therapeutic rec program and a gentleman named Bill Furbish, who became my coach. And that’s where I found my fun in sporting again, and being physical, challenging myself. And it really played an important role being involved in these adaptive sports, because it gave me more of that sense of confidence in myself and my ability to achieve things. And so, I used that as a springboard to catapult me into other things that I like to do. I had been active in competitive motorcycling, and so it kind of gave me the idea, “well, maybe I could buy a car, and start racing cars and be competitive in the non- adaptive world? Just no problem with the adaptive sport world, but let me find something that is truer to my nature and truer to the spirit that I feel is in me.” And so, I did. I went and bought myself a cheap car at first because if I tore it up it wasn’t much lost. And I slowly found myself building momentum in racing cars. I think that the adaptive sports gave me the confidence that I needed to springboard into a sporting activity that was more true to my spirit and my sense of self.
Right off the bat, I started playing wheelchair rugby. Actually, I was still in inpatient when I first started conditioning with the team, so I still had my collar on and everything. I wasn’t allowed to get hit but just the physical activity was awesome. It was, you know watching you think it’s so much easier than it is until you get out there. I remember the first time they put me in a scrimmage to play it was like the whole play went by and I said, “what just happened?” I could not figure it out then, pretty much still happens now. I’m not very good at it but I enjoy being out there. I have a racing chair, so I’m trying to figure out wheelchair racing a little bit just, so I can do a couple of races over the summer. It’s really just for, you know that cardio kind of aerobic, not so much – I’m not the most competitive person, so a competitive sport like that is, I can take it or leave it. But I enjoyed water sports before I got hurt, so I’m trying to take up waterskiing also. So, I want to really learn how to water ski independently so that way I can go out with friends. As far as sports go, I’d love to be able to do sports that able-bodied people can do also. So, tennis is really exciting to me, although I’m a quad, so it’s really hard for me to hold the tennis racket. But looking at a sport like that, it’s like you can play tennis against someone who is able-bodied, or you can go waterskiing with all your friends that might wakeboard or something like that. And you’re out there with everyone else, you’re not sitting on the sidelines watching.
I was fortunate that about six months after my injury, that in the city of Philadelphia, there was a program called Rec Day. It gave people with disabilities an opportunity to go try different things. So, I went down, I jumped on a hand cycle. I had a very experienced person help me get started, and I loved it. I was hooked, and a month after that, I found a way through people’s support to buy a hand cycle. It was great. It helped to build my confidence, it gave me the ability to improve my transfers, and build my strength up. I think what I loved most about hand cycling as well is it gave me an opportunity to get out of the chair and fly. When you go one speed all day every day, well that was pretty awesome. Later, I was able to take the strength that I had built up through hand cycling, and begin playing wheelchair tennis. I’d always played tennis before my injury, so this was a chance to pick up the game I loved, just in a different way.
Well, I am very active in adaptive sports; scuba diving is one of my favorite sports. I also play sled hockey, and I also play—or am an advocate for—hand cycling. One of my favorite sports is sled hockey and it's basically played the way as regular ice hockey is played, and we're in a specially adaptive sled with two hockey sticks. We wear all the same equipment that a hockey player would wear, and you basically play hockey like everyone else would.
Cyclist, runner, weight-lifter, motorcycle-racer, so a lot of those sports I do have to deal with speed. So I, I take wheelchair track, wheelchair racing, hand cycling, I do some strength training on my own, or I go to a gym, and another thing is swimming. Swimming’s going to the be toughest part because of my level of injury, being a T4-T5 right here, my, my bottom is like a boat anchor dragging along the floor. So, I’m trying to figure out what I can do to help make the upper part stay planer, so that way I can actually go through the water instead of dragging myself through. But I do wheelchair racing, hand cycling, swimming, and hopefully I’ll start triathlons. It’s only been a year and a half, so I’m trying to pace myself a bit.
I skied for several years until I got smart enough to say, "it's darn cold up there, I don't need this anymore," but I loved, I did love doing it. I played a little tennis, I did wheelchair racing, I did a lot of racing for a few years, and I even played quad rugby—"murder ball"—and not very much, but I did. I also went swimming quite a bit.
I absolutely do. I was very active before my injury. I hiked a mountain two-three times a week, I had just done the Savage Race, I taught trampoline aerobics; fitness was a big part of my life. So, how did I fill that hole? Adaptive sports. I joined the water ski team here, and I learned how to water ski. And I competed in the Nationals last October, and I won a bronze in trick skiing and silver in slalom.
For me, it's all about preservation. How could I make sure that I preserve my body so I could do the things that I need to do? You know, I do rowing and kayaking from time to time, but for me, my daily life is therapeutic, you know? So, I’m kind of more on that. Instead of going to the gym, my daily life becomes therapeutic. You know, I do all the things around the house that needs to be done. You know, I come to work every day, you know, I transfer a gazillion times a day, I go to the grocery store. So, for me, I tried to live an active lifestyle and that's my therapeutic recreation. It's not sexy, but, you know, it works for me.
I hand bike for fun. I’ve done three half-marathons, hopefully someday I’ll do a full marathon. Other than that, I’ve done some wheelchair basketball clinics; I’ve been to a couple other clinics like that. At some point I’d like to try wheelchair rugby, but the thing that I’ve done most is hand cycling.