Like most 13-year-old boys, Joey Jaroni enjoys competing in a variety of sports.
The Glen Burnie resident's athletic prowess recently earned him three gold medals and a silver at a national meet in Princeton, N.J.
The eighth-grader at Corkran Middle School captured first place in two swimming events -- freestyle and breast stroke -- and archery, and second in table tennis.
He set a national record in the archery competition, missing the target only twice in 70 shots.
Joey's accomplishments are impressive by anyone's standards, but they become even more inspiring knowing he spends most of his waking hours in a wheelchair.
A severe case of meningitis when he was just 6 days oldattenuated Joey's legs to the point where he can move about his split-level home only with the use of a walker.
Easily fatigued by even the most routine physical activity, he relies on a wheelchair for most of his extended travel.
What the disease failed to weaken, however, was the youngster's desire to excel in sports.
"I love the competition," said Joey, who was showered with accolades at last month's National Junior Wheelchair Championships. "It's fun just having a chance to compete against others."
Finding the opportunity for hisson to compete was something Joe Jaroni had longed for, and ultimately found, at the newly founded Bennett Institute for the Physically Challenged in Baltimore.
Housed on the grounds of Baltimore's Children's Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, the Bennett Institute is a sports and recreation facility specifically designed for the disabled.
The center is run by the husband and wife staff of Gerry and Gwenna Hermann, who were recruited from Boston last February to set up and orchestrate the complex.
"We try to offer an equal opportunity for the kids," said Gerry Hermann, who works with the disabled ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 21.
"Most of the kids are mainstreamed intothe public school systems and they have had success in that, but when the whistle blows to end the school day, their classmates go to theplaying fields and they are left behind.
"What we try to do at Bennett is provide them with a parallel athletic experience, and I think the kids need something like that."
The elder Jaroni agreed.
"The type of activity Joey gets at Bennett is extremely important because he can't get it in the traditional ways, such as school and intramurals," said Joe, who is vice president of the Spina Bifida Association of Maryland.
Although Joey does not have spina bifida, he does possess the same symptoms as those with the congenital defect.
Joey attended the national competition on the campus of Princeton University with his nine-member team from the Bennett Institute.
Joey and his teammates qualified for the nationals through their performances in a series of regional qualifying meets, including one last May at Salisbury State University.
Joey's squad gained national recognition at Princeton, bringing home 34 medals, including 14 gold, 11 silver and nine bronze.
"I never thought we would do as well as we did at the nationals," said Gerry Hermann, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a degree in adapted physical education. "We did very well.
"We set a three-tier goal system at Bennett. Our first goal is one that we expect the child to reach or a standard that they have already accomplished. Our second is improvement through increased training, and the third one is where they exceed a level at which they exceed our expectations.
"About 80 percent of the kids reached that third level (at the nationals) and Joey was one of them."
While swimming and archery are Joey's strongest sports, they are not the only ones in which he competes. At the nationals, Joey also competed in the track and field events, including shot put, discus and javelin throw, and the 100-, 200- and 400-meter wheelchair races and slalom race through an obstacle course.
Last week, Joey and Gwenna Hermann took first place in the Severn Valley Racquet Club's junior division of the "One Up, One Down" Tennis Tournament, which teams a disabled player with an able-bodied player.
Although he has only worked with Joey for a little more than a year, Gerry Hermann said he has seen the youth make tremendous strides in several areas.
He attributes Joey's success at the nationals to his work ethic.
"He justkeeps going and going and he'll never stop voluntarily," said Hermann. "In fact, some times I have to make him stop so that he doesn't overwork himself.
"We have a running joke with his family that if weasked him to run into a brick wall repeatedly, he would do it. He does everything we ask of him and he never questions anything we ask him to do."
Hermann, who works with many disabled children, including those with cerebral palsy, believes Joey's participation in athletics has helped in his development as a young man. He sees no limit to what Joey can someday accomplish.
"When Joey came to us, he was quiet, shy and reserved and he didn't have a lot of motivation," he said. "At that point, his only real outlet in life was Nintendo.
"But, since coming here, he has shown improvement in his confidence and self-esteem, as well as physical improvement. His mental improvement will help him become more functional in all aspects of life."