Pushing Past Boundaries

Howard's Ben Helman has not let the fact that he is confined to a wheelchair stop him from competing for the track team.


Ben Helman is the first to admit that he's not supposed to be out on the track at Howard, practicing with the rest of his teammates.

It's not that Helman lacks the competitive fire that his teammates possess or that the junior doesn't have a passion for the sport.

But Helman realizes that his wheelchair isn't conducive to a sport in which using your legs to run 100 meters or so is a priority. Helman, who captured the 200 and 400 in the wheelchair division at the county championships earlier this month, can't help but ask in wonderment how he is practicing, riding the team bus and wearing a Howard team uniform with the likes of Chris Brewington, Joey Thompson and Anthony Elliott.

"It's awesome because not only am I actually watching track, but also I'm actually in it," said Helman, who is the only competitor in the county's boys wheelchair division. "Six months ago, I would have never dreamed of being out here actually doing something. Now I'm doing 400s and being a county champion."

Competing in a wheelchair has its challenges for Helman. Several weeks ago, for example, the left tire on his wheelchair blew out while Helman was completing the 100. And the wheelchair that Helman uses is so cramped that after he squeezes his 5-foot-10 frame into the seat, his knees are almost up to his chest.

But Helman's appetite for the sport has overshadowed those hurdles. Helman, who has never missed a practice unless he had a doctor's appointment, has lowered his time in the 100 from three minutes to 41.3 seconds, and his time in the 400 from 4 minutes, 14.44 seconds at the county championships to 3:15.72 at the Tri-State Games in Edison, N.J., on May 18.

Undaunted by the blown tire in the 100, Helman continued to push until he crossed the finish line.

"I just finished the race," he said nonchalantly. "It was way slower than I wanted it to be, but on those days, I see some of my teammates doing the best that they can, and it just cheers me on."

Helman's performance has had a similar effect on his teammates.

"Seeing him doing that, it makes me want to come out every day to practice and run my butt off," said Brewington, a junior who won Class 2A West regional crowns in the 200 and 400 and a county title in the 400 this spring. "I've seen Ben at practice where he goes until he can't go anymore. He's dedicated."

Helman credited Atholton sophomore Tatyana McFadden with opening the door for wheelchair athletes like himself. In April, McFadden went to court to win the right to participate in track and field meets alongside able-bodied athletes in the county.

"Tatyana inspired me, and she started this whole thing," Helman said. "I just followed."

Unlike McFadden, however, Helman - who counts boxer Jimmy Lange, basketball great Michael Jordan and baseball star Derek Jeter as his role models - does not compete against anyone else.

Helman, 17, has had to use a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. Helman and his twin brother Sean were born to Jack and Patty Helman three months before their targeted arrival.

Patty Helman said doctors decided to induce labor early because the boys suffered from Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome, a disease that attacks the placenta. In the Helmans' case, the boys were absorbing nutrients not from their mother, but from each other, according to Patty Helman. One twin consumed more nutrients, causing the other's health to weaken.

Ben Helman weighed just 2 1/2 pounds at birth and was on a respirator for three weeks because both of his lungs had collapsed in the first 24 hours of life, according to his mother. While Jack and Patty Helman brought Ben home after three months, Sean never left the hospital and died at eight months old.

Shortly after bringing home Ben, the Helmans received word from their doctor that a brain scan on Ben showed that the area that helped control movement appeared damaged. Several years after Ben began missing milestones such as sitting up and crawling, the Helmans learned that he had cerebral palsy.

But rather than wallow in pity, the Helmans have always pushed Ben to be independent. Ben Helman has been playing sled hockey through a league sponsored by the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program.

He also plays basketball and spent one semester of his sophomore year doing military presses and leg extensions for a weightlifting class at Howard.

"I've always wanted him to have as full of a life as he could, and I felt like if I protected him, he wasn't going to have a full life or he wasn't going to be able to grow up and have an independent life," Patty Helman said. "And that's what we've really tried to stress to him, that just because you're in a wheelchair doesn't mean that your life can't be full, that you can't enjoy everything that people who happen to walk do."

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