Disabled athletes play hard

Competition: Thanks to determination and new technology, more people can feel the rush of adrenalin on water, snow, courts or fields.

December 14, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Derek Taylor positions his wheelchair into the path of a charging ball carrier and braces for the crash. "I wonder," he says to himself, "how bad this one is going to hurt."

The percussion of chair ramming chair reverberates through the gym like a heavy, metal drawer slamming shut. Noise, but this time no pain. It's a successful goal-line stand by Taylor, a defensive specialist for the Potomac Panthers "quad rugby" team.

Yes, quad rugby, as in rugby for quadriplegics. One ball, two teams and countless sideswipes, T-bones and head-on collisions. Picture a wheelchair demolition derby.

"When you boil it down, it's just guys trying to knock each other out," Taylor confesses. "It's fun to just get out there and knock people around."

If you think sports for the disabled begins and ends with wheelchair basketball, think again. Thanks in large part to lighter and more mobile wheelchairs and sophisticated sports equipment, disabled people are enjoying hair-raising adventures and rough-and-tumble sports like quad rugby.

"Everybody has that little bit of urgency to be a risk-taker -- `Let's push the envelope a little bit,' " said Pamela Lehnert, director of Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports, a program for the disabled.

Paraplegics play "sled hockey," using ice picks to propel themselves across the rink. They play wheelchair football, which is not so rough as quad rugby, although a Perry Hall man recently died from head injuries suffered in a game.

Disabled thrill-seekers ski, on snow and on water, with special equipment. They ride whitewater rapids on wilderness rivers, kayak coastline bays and scuba-dive.

Some race four-wheel "off-road mountain chairs" down rugged biking trails, taking the jumps and ditches at more than 30 mph.

"It's one of the most exciting things I've ever done," says Sarah Will, a Colorado woman who was paralyzed from the waist down in 1988 in a ski accident. "Scary? It can be."

And the disabled are no longer limited to shooting hoops or playing softball with only their disabled friends.

A skeet shooting program brings fathers and sons together at a range near Loch Raven Reservoir. Disabled shooters chock their wheelchairs, and those with limited upper-body strength and mobility place the barrels of their shotguns on metal stanchions to steady their aim.

At family sailing outings at Sandy Point State Park, the disabled handle the tillers in modified keels that are operated by Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.

Active with friends, families

"It's a revolution in lifestyles," said Kirk Bauer, director of Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit national athletic program based in Rockville. "It's a lot of fun. It's great for your health and it's great for socialization. We can do these activities right along with our friends and families in a mainstream setting."

Over the past three decades, his organization has grown from 13 to 86 chapters of disabled skiers with programs for 20 sports. Bauer, who lost a leg in combat in Vietnam, skis and recently ran his first marathon using the latest in prosthetics.

For inspiration, the disabled can look to the paraplegic who this year scaled 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, or the amputee who last year reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Gerry Herman, co-director of the Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program for children and young adults in Baltimore, remembers when the disabled had few options other than wheelchair basketball.

"Now the choices are limitless," he says. "The barriers are being trampled down. If someone has an interest in it, there's someone who will help you find a way to do it."

Last year, Herman's program added sled hockey, where players move about the ice on sleds that are affixed to skate blades. Using two short hockey sticks, they shoot and pass the puck.

The program also operates a six-team wheelchair football league. The sport is similar to flag football, but played in a gym. When a ball carrier's wheelchair is touched, he is down. Some players use Styrofoam swimming "noodles" as bumpers on their chairs.

New love of sports

A few months ago, wheelchair football captured the imagination of a frail young man named Bryce Riley.

When he was age 6, Riley was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare muscle and tissue disease. At age 20, he weighed 60 pounds and could not move his head from side to side or lift his arms. He had virtually no muscle.

Riley was a fund-raiser for Johns Hopkins Children's Center and an artist whose drawings graced the center's holiday cards. Otherwise, he was a homebody who spent hours playing video games, his parents said. Growing up, Riley was no outdoorsman; he could not shoo bugs from his face. He was no athlete.

But two years ago, he began playing wheelchair soccer, where players use their chairs to bump a large ball toward a goal line. And this fall he joined a football team. He was the captain, and he named the team the Black Hole, a nod to his love of science fiction.

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