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Q&A: What role has adaptive sports played in your life?
Importance of Adaptive Sports After a Spinal Cord Injury
Daniel is a sports fanatic. He has three older brothers and they're all very competitive, they're all very athletic, and so, any sport that you suggest to Daniel, he would love to be a part of it. So, he is in sled hockey, he's in wheelchair soccer, he's in wheelchair basketball, he skis, he just started that a couple years ago and absolutely loves it. He does downhill skiing, so our whole family has been able to ski together, and we didn't know that would ever be possible, that we'd all be out on the mountain together, so that was very fun. He plays wiffle ball with his brothers at home, they always have this summer wiffle-ball tournament, and actually his buddies and stuff from school and his brother's friends from classes and stuff, they all get in on it. They all get in on it, they all play, you know whatever it is, together. And, with baseball, or wiffle-ball or that, Danny will—they know that Danny's bases are here, and those everyone else's bases are out there, but it's never been a problem.
Growing up with a disability, bicycles were totally out the question. I mean, I couldn't ride a bike, and they never had adaptive equipment for individuals with bicycles. But, I was always creative. One of the things I did as a kid is, many of you may remember Big Wheels, you know—I couldn't use my feet, so what I'd do is I took the seat off the Big Wheel and I would kneel on the Big Wheel, and put my chest into the handle bars. And, then I would reach over and peddle the Big Wheel by my hands, and I was able to steer the Big Wheel by turning my chest left or right if I wanted to turn. And, I'd be able to pretty much keep with any kid on my block with that Big Wheel.
One of my mantras, I guess you could call it that, or a quote that I came across is an old proverb that says, “if you want to go fast travel alone, if you want to go far travel together.” And sports is going far in disability, it helps you pull together in a community and it helps you go far.
I’ve always been a very physical person. The problem with the way that I had been physical in the past was that I liked rock climbing, mountaineering, hiking and getting my physical activity in a less competitive kind of way, but in a very physical kind of way. And when I saw people rock climbing, or read articles about people who had summitted particular peaks or what not after their spinal cord injuries, I saw it as something completely different. I saw it as climbing a rope instead of climbing the mountain, and I couldn’t see myself feeling accomplished by that. You know, to no disrespect to the people who do get their accomplishments that way, it just doesn’t feel like a fit for me. I gave it a try. I went to the rock climbing gym, and I just spent about an hour and a half, two hours doing it. And, it wasn’t the aggravation of not being as good at it, it was just a whole different experience. And so, then I challenged myself. I said “well, maybe I need to get involved in more traditional sports.” So, I tried track and field events. I got out there and racing the wheelchair, and I am 33 years old and this guy is 17. I’m puttering out and he’s just getting started, and I just didn’t feel like that was a good fit for me. I threw shot put and discus for a while. Same thing—17-year-old kid with spina bifida and arms like this, just flicking the shot put out there way further than I could ever hope to. And so, that didn’t feel like a good fit for me.
I had been a huge athlete my entire life. Sport was my life, I had a reputation, it was a part of my identity, all my friends played sports. So, I think that’s why after this injury I was really scared about what life was going to be like if I wouldn’t play sports again. My favorite sport that I was introduced to was wheelchair ice hockey at the Pettit Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through Independence First. And, that was such a powerful and empowering experience for me because that was the first time when I started playing ice hockey that I felt like an athlete again. I was also a big downhill skier before my spinal cord injury. I did try adaptive skiing, unfortunately, I had a hard time with the cold, being out on the ski slopes, and for me, because of the assistance you need, it kind of lost its appeal for me. I did play ice hockey for three or four years. I also really enjoy adaptive water skiing. Something that I experienced after spinal cord injury was re-identifying myself and finding new activities.
So, basketball will always be my first love, I don’t think I can ever replace that. But wheelchair rugby definitely one, allowed me to be around a bunch of people who have the same injury level as me, and I’m able to learn a lot from them. But, you can learn a million things in OT from an OT, however once you sit down with a quadriplegic who is like, “I am going to show you how I do it,” it just clicks so easily. So, I have really benefited in my personal life just from the people around me in wheelchair rugby. I mean at the same time it’s fun, we’re a really good team so we’re competitive, and just to be able to go out and win and kick butt again is amazing.
There’s no better feeling. I feel like there is lack of adrenaline once you become disabled, and I can’t tell you any bigger smile I’ve had than when I’ve gone skiing and water skiing. And just that adrenaline, and that you are actually doing something, it’s indescribable.
Yes, this is one of the big ones. It took me five years; I actually just started last year. I play quad rugby, and I really wish I had done it a little bit sooner because it’s great camaraderie figuring out new things with people with disabilities. Just because most people that I talk to don’t have disabilities, and don’t know what I’m going through, and when I’m there, I can figure stuff out. It’s really been wonderful.
Sports has always been a social and athletic endeavor for me. The biggest thing is that I don’t want to—as maybe a lot of folks know, when you’re disabled, a lot of folks end up letting that consume them, and being sedentary, and being inactive. I’ve always wanted to be as active as possible, and I use sports now as an outlet for me to stay active and stay in shape. I love to eat, I really love to eat. So, I use sports as a means to give me the excuse to being able to eat, because it raises my basal metabolic rate, so I can eat more and still stay fit. And, I also use sports as a means to socialize with others, and network with other folks that are adaptive athletes like myself.
Being a competitive athlete prior to and then getting injured that way, I didn’t turn my back on it. But at the same time, I recognized that as I was moving into a new phase of my life, having to relearn my life, and then relearn a new sport, or a sport, that I did in a different way, I felt like I had sort of checked that box, and I didn’t necessarily want to try to continue to just pursue that. At the same time, I still love to ride my bike, I have a racing chair that I enjoy using. I think the limitations of my time have kept me from pursuing it more competitively. But the enjoyment of actually doing that is really what it’s all about for me now and being able to spend the time with my children and on bike rides with them.
Before I got hurt, I ran cross-country and played soccer at my high school. And then after I got hurt, my cross-country team raised money to buy me a hand bike. So, what I ended up doing was hand biking during the practices while my teammates were running. And I would usually do the same work outs, just on the bike, and a lot slower. And that was a great thing for me. I think most people experience adaptive sports through a disabled population, so my experience was a little bit different, because I was doing adaptive sports with an able-bodied team. But, it was awesome. That was one of the most important things for me after my injury. Especially just because my coach was great. He treated me like every other athlete, which was exactly what I wanted. He was never easy on me, he was always proud of me when I did well like the other teammates. I didn’t have meets, so he would set up time trials and goals like that for me. But, I mean, he would yell at me just as much as everyone else. I remember one time in practice, we were doing sets and I came through a time that was over what I was supposed to be in. And he shakes his head, and is like, “Come on Fausone, pick it up.” And he just looks at me like I’m this disappointment. It was great to just feel like I was treated like everybody else, that’s what I wanted. It was good to have someone that was just as hard on me as he was on the other girls.
It's the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life. Wheelchair sports, I mean, I recommended it to anybody that's in a wheelchair. Get out there, and try it, just try it and you will get hooked on it. But don't say I can't, never say you can't, you try it and you'll be surprised what you can do. I play wheelchair basketball, I play for the RIC Cubs and we're sponsored by the Chicago Cubs, I play for the Chicago Blackhawks and we're sponsored by the Chicago Blackhawks, I do hand cycling, I do wheelchair racing, and I work.
I am an adventurous person, so being able to do adaptive sports and adaptive things—I don’t think I would lump it into sports wholly because I go camping, and so, that’s adaptive to me. And it’s just being adventurous, it’s getting out of my comfort zone, and doing something that—like I would’ve probably, able-bodied, I probably would’ve never gone scuba diving. But it’s allowed the opportunity to go scuba diving and experience something like that. And so, I don’t know, anything that’s adventurous I’m going to give it a shot.
Well adaptive sports are very important in my life. They’re what I am. I get all chocked up, but—cause I’m “a man,” you know, you’re not supposed to do that— but without that, I’m that person that wasn’t supposed to do anything.
I discovered that, perhaps I could dance in my wheelchair. And met a friend, Alana, who also has a disability and wanted to dance. We started taking class together, and then she had a fledgling dance company, I joined her company, and it sort of went on from there. Prior to my injury, I had been a choreographer, a performer and a teacher for many years. So, I was thrilled that I would be able to get into it. It's not the same; I don't pretend that it, that it is the same as being a stand-up dancer. Nevertheless, it allows me the creativity, the freedom of movement, the experience of moving in time and space, and to music, and to choreograph. So I can create, and I continue to do that.
One of the things I really love about sports is just the family aspect of having other people going through the same stuff that you’re going through. We’re all going for the same goal, and then on top of being on the sports teams though, going through the same things in life now since I’m having to deal with an injury, and all these people have already been through the injury. So, going out to travel with them, seeing how they get around, stuff like that, that was something I liked. And so getting back involved with sports, that was one thing that helped me, but then being part of the team, and competing, and just getting out all the energy and physical stuff that I like to get out. Because I mean I like rugby because it’s a team sport, but I like racing because it’s an individual sport. So I don’t have to listen to everybody keep bitching and stuff on the team sport like I do during rugby season, and then I can go out, and do racing and that’s all on me, so.
Adaptive sports changed my life for the better. And not only that, it gave me an outlet to impact other lives, because when I got involved with wheelchair body building, I was so amazed with seeing all these adaptive athletes that I built the main website— I became the founder of Wheelchair Body Build, Inc., and to this day, I am the voice of wheelchair body building.
Being in a small town, there was nothing else there, so I was still part of the baseball team. And I would dress out, and keep the books, or get the bats, bat boy stuff. Same thing with football, even though I wasn’t active. So, I wanted to do something else, and I got into wheelchair racing. And it was fun until I saw the hills, and they were too high and I’m like, “no, this is not for me.” In college, tried basketball and it was good. After college, moved to Atlanta, tried little things and then a gentleman from the Shepherd Center said, “let’s water ski.” And went out, and just fell in love, and that too allowed the independence because, you’re on your own. It was a struggle to learn to get in the skis, how to hold the rope and things, but again, you set the goals just like in rehab, and go and accomplish them one at a time. And he talked me into skiing in a tournament. I couldn’t do the course, I could barely get up on the ski, but I did it just for the experience and it was fantastic. So, again it puts you out in front, makes you think of beyond your capabilities and gets you motivated to do more.
Yes, I played quad rugby, for about a year. Four years into my injury, I met a couple of guys at RIC and they introduced me to the sport when I wasn't working or doing anything. It was great, it was a great sport. Strengthened me up, got me tougher, and it was great, I miss it, I really do, I miss it. Quad rugby is almost like American football; it's soccer, it's a rough sport, I mean. We crash, we hit each other, it's a great sport but it's pretty rough; it's not for the faint of heart, but I enjoy it. I mean, you let out a lot of aggression you know, being in the wheelchair, you feel aggressive, so as men, we like to get out and let it out sometimes.
I think he could relate to people in a sports environment. The other guys playing wheelchair rugby, he now is friends with them. We met them up in North Jersey this summer, and now he’s talking to a few of them. I have bought the video, “Murderball.” When he first got out of the hospital, he refused to watch it. When we came home from the Push-to-Walk camp, he was watching it.