Paralympic spirits are up to challenge Games: Local athletes, who've used sports to regain control of their lives, will go for the gold in Atlanta.

August 08, 1996|By Kevin Langbaum | Kevin Langbaum,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Jim Leatherman was a basketball veteran when he played on the U.S. wheelchair team at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea. Next week, in Atlanta, he will be one of six Baltimore-area athletes competing in the 10th Paralympic Games, a gathering of the world's top disabled athletes. The games will run Aug. 15-25.

This time, participating in the yachting competition, he faces the challenge of a sport that's new to him.

But he's faced challenges before.

In October 1966, Leatherman, then 6, was playing tag with friends in Highlandtown when he slipped, slid down an $l embankment and landed under a moving train. Both of his legs were severed. He was told he was lucky to survive.

"There's not a detail of that day that I don't remember," said Leatherman, now 36 and living in Baltimore. When Leatherman went back to his local playground after more than a year in the hospital, the other children treated the 7-year-old in a wheelchair as an outcast. They refused to find a role for him in baseball. But when a player got hurt one day, the others thought it would be amusing to have Leatherman pitch. It didn't turn out so funny for the kids he pitched to.

The arm strength he had built up from using the wheelchair made him a dominant pitcher. He also once impressed on the football field when, without his wheelchair, he maneuvered through the center's legs to sack the quarterback.

"Sports have played a major role in my life since Day One," Leatherman said. "When I came out of the hospital, it was through sports that I was able to reacclimate myself with the kids in the neighborhood."

Leatherman became a dedicated participant in, and ambassador for, wheelchair athletics.

About six years ago, he was introduced to Chris Murphy, an accomplished sailor who had recently been paralyzed below the waist in a motorcycle accident. Murphy's parents had heard about Leatherman and thought he could help their son get back into sports.

"He taught me how to play basketball and, a couple of years later, we turned it around and I taught him how to sail," said Murphy, 25, of Annapolis.

Now, the two will be crewmates on the U.S. team at the Paralympics.

"To participate is just a fabulous opportunity to not only showcase your ability as an individual, but to showcase the abilities of folks with disabilities," Leatherman said. "People with disabilities are as talented, as competitive as any of their able-bodied counterparts."

Back on court

Bill Demby showed he could compete with able-bodied athletes when he appeared in a television commercial playing basketball on his prosthetic legs. He'll be on the Paralympic team for the third time.

After nearly medaling in shot put, discus and javelin in Seoul in 1988 and playing volleyball in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 because of a registration mix-up, Demby, 45, of Mitchellville will play volleyball again in Atlanta. He will compete in sitting volleyball, where the net is lower, the court is smaller and the athletes must keep their backsides on the floor.

A multi-sport star in high school, Demby was just shy of his 20th birthday when he lost both legs below the knees in Vietnam. It took him five years to get involved in sports again.

"I would hope that people look beyond what I've overcome," he said. "These are elite athletes who happen to have disabilities."

Demby is also a motivational speaker, encouraging disabled youths to get involved in sports and making able-bodied people aware the disabled can compete.

"I think every kid who grows up looking at the Olympics has a goal of maybe one time competing at that level," he said. "[Disabled athletes] have to keep their attitude and spirits up and understand that they can do it, too."

Already golden

Tico Clawson has tasted victory before. He's already raced twice before crowds at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium. And he's about to make history.

Clawson, 19, who graduated from Baltimore's Venable High School in June, won the 100 and 200 meters at the 1995 Special Olympics World Games in New Haven, Conn., for mentally disabled athletes.

And he participated in a Special Olympics demonstration during the U.S. Olympics track and field trials, winning the 100 and long jump.

His performances in the 200 and long jump at the Paralympic trials in June qualified him for the U.S. team. In Atlanta, he will be one of the first Special Olympians to compete in the Paralympics. Clawson This will be the first year events for Special Olympians will be included.

"I never thought I'd get here," said Clawson, who also has been invited for special competition in the Penn Relays in Philadelphia the past four years. "It's going to be harder for me to run against these people. All I can say is that I'll try my best."

At first, Clawson was not eager to run competitively. He believed that he could not win a race. His coach at Venable, Rudolph Goines, helped him get over his fears and into competition.

"I found out that I've got a special gift to run that I didn't know about," he said.

Difficult adjustment

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