A power mover Paraplegic: Since 1977 injury, weightlifter Joseph Singleton has learned what he can do.

June 21, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Six a.m., April 6, 1977, on a highway in central Oregon.

It is a time, date and place indelibly etched on Joseph Singleton's memory. Returning to his Coast Guard base in Oregon after a brief furlough, Singleton was asleep in the passenger's seat when the driver hit a median strip and the car hurtled out of control.

"When I woke up in an Army hospital, I was in a plastic bubble and couldn't breathe. The doctors told me my body had jackknifed, with my head landing outside the windshield and my torso and legs twisted inside," said Singleton, a Washington native now residing in Columbia.

When the sedatives wore off, Singleton, then 21, learned he never would walk again and that he had two steel rods permanently supporting his broken spinal cord.

"Now I can tell you it was a blessing," said Singleton, who is working toward his second college degree at Bowie State, has earned a black belt in karate, plays wheelchair basketball with the original Baltimore Ravens and will be representing the United States next month as a power lifter in the Invitational Wheelchair Games in Stoke Mandeville, England.

A national paraplegic record holder for his weight class (132 pounds) with a combined power lift press and bench press of 449 pounds, Singleton serves as a role model to high school athletes, making appearances throughout Howard County as a representative of the Disabilities Awareness Program.

"Kids really gravitate to me," he said. "They feel if I can be a sports champion, anything is possible."

But Singleton said he was not always such an inspiration.

Before his crippling accident, he remembers himself as an aimless misfit who had no plans after his pending discharge from the service in June 1977.

"Frankly, I had nothing to offer society at the time," Singleton said after a workout at the Colosseum Fitness Center in Columbia.

"I had a high school education, but no job skills. As a kid, I ran the streets of southeast D.C. I had no father. My mother raised six kids, but I was the only boy, always trying to prove my manhood."

By the time he was 12, he had been in enough scrapes to earn a trip to Boys Town in Nebraska. When he turned 18, a judge gave him a choice.

"He told me I could join the military or go back to the streets, where I'd probably end up in jail," Singleton said. "Naturally, I chose the Coast Guard, but even that was just a ploy to keep me out of Vietnam. I really had no ambition."

After the accident, Singleton spent more than a year in military hospitals. He was given a disability discharge and was feeling extremely sorry for himself.

"I went through all the classic symptoms -- rebellion, depression, withdrawal. It took me almost three years to have enough courage to face the world."

With his once stocky body shriveled to 110 pounds by repeated surgery, Singleton was encouraged by hospital therapists to exercise to build up resistance, while adding weight and strength.

His first challenge came in 1982, when he began a class in karate.

"Back then, teachers weren't that anxious to work with disabled people," he said. "But Will Maier, the karate master at United Martial Artists in Columbia, was different. From Day 1, he told me, 'I'm not interested in what you can't do, but what you can do.' "

Eight years later, he achieved black belt status.

"A friend once told me, 'If better is possible, then good is not enough.' And I've tried to live up to that," he said.

"There are a lot of days when the weather is bad, and just pushing myself in the wheelchair to get in the car is a chore. People say I've got a legitimate excuse not to extend myself. But once you start making excuses, it becomes a crutch."

Nothing has stopped Singleton's athletic pursuits. But lifting became his ultimate challenge.

"This gym is like the bar in 'Cheers,' " said Singleton, looking around the Colosseum complex. "Everybody is your friend, encouraging you to excel."

Two times a week, Singleton spends two hours working with his coach, Bill Bejeck, lifting and strengthening his legs and biceps on the rowing machine.

"Joseph has a better attitude and work ethic than the able-bodied lifters I work with," said Bejeck.

"He does whatever it takes to improve, and he's broken his own record several times. A week ago, he lifted 255 [in the bench press]. Anywhere close to that, he should win his weight class in England."

After winning several area and national lifting titles, Singleton competed in the 1992 Para-Olympics in Barcelona.

"They kicked my butt," he said with an embarrassed laugh. "I found out how tough international competition can be."

Singleton said he was better prepared for this year's Para-Olympics in Atlanta. But rule changes and financial shortcomings ended his hopes.

"You have to qualify in a number of meets in Europe, and I just couldn't do it without a sponsor," he said.

"I had to rely on my family and some friends for this trip to England next month. I'll be eating a lot of bologna sandwiches to save money. But I've got to bring back a medal. Too many people believe in me."

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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