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What If Wheelchair Racing Were Just Another Sport?

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My friends call me an exercise tourist because I love running, biking, swimming, triathlons, skiing, pretty much physical activity of any kind, but last year I crossed a line.

I showed up at a suburban high school to test out a wheelchair racer. Health reasons meant that I had to give up running. I had been a marathoner, and now I was walking with a cane. How much fun would wheelchair racing be?

It turned out to be my entry into the wonderful adventure that is adaptive sports, and it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

The adaptive sports association I had called after much trepidation because I was afraid I wasn’t disabled enough was ridiculously enthusiastic. I spoke to several people who had clearly learned to say “yes” repeatedly to people who have been told “no” for far too long.

I still wasn’t sure I belonged, but I showed up anyway. The first time was surreal. I wore my old running shoes but could have worn just about any footwear. This was a shock after years of obsessively buying good running shoes. I got strapped in and lasted about five minutes before I started feeling claustrophobic. One of the racers said, “Why are you here? You can stand?”

I believe she asked this question more out of curiosity than animosity. It’s a good one. I wish more would ask: Why would someone who can stand and walk and swim and do yoga and ride a bike, take up wheelchair racing? Why would I use outriggers, essentially ski crutches, to go skiing? Why would I think about joining a sled hockey team.

I’m still new at all this, but I have come to believe many more people could benefit from adaptive sports, and I believe even the most disabled could benefit from the mainstreaming of these activities.

Caveat: I believe the paralympics and other sports events should absolutely continue as they are. That’s not what this essay is about. Nor is this a criticism of adaptive sports organizations. They do amazing things with not enough resources.

I believe a better question is why don’t more people take advantage of adaptive sports? No one has to wait until they have completely lost the use of a limb or one of the senses in order to participate. What if the black line demarcating so-called able-bodied sports from adaptive sports was a giant grey continuum?

I know I hesitated to make the call because I grew up with the concept that “if you use a crutch, you will always use it” as if that was necessarily a bad thing. As someone who has used a cane and still uses one occasionally, the truth is that once you no longer need one you will simply forget it somewhere. If you do need one long term or even forever, there are numerous styles and colors to choose from. I even own one with a spike to deal with snow and ice. Another one glows in the dark. Life goes on and can actually be pretty wonderful if you use a cane, wear glasses or drive a mobility scooter.

I am not a wheelchair user in my daily life, but I started training because I love racing so much that I am unwilling to give it up just because my legs won’t cooperate. I took up running in my late 20s exchanging my lifestyle as a 245lb couch potato for one that involved the freedom of having the wind in my hair. My initial goal was just to be able to run for a bus, but I ended up competing in the 2002 and 2007 marathons in my home town of Chicago. Running as thousands of people line the streets to cheer you along with thousands of other runners really makes me feel at home.

I am now 42, and I may or may not ever be able to run another marathon or a 5k or for a bus. A couple of times a month, I get strapped into a racing wheelchair for a run around a track at a local military base. Jogging army men and women have to dodge around me as I meander around the track because I haven’t quite mastered the art of steering. A helmet is on my head because if I lean backwards the whole contraption tips over. That’s called “turtling”, and I’ve nearly gone over several times. Thick leather gloves are on my hands because moving the chair means punching the wheel rims, and I’ve learned the hard way that not wearing them gives me blisters and broken fingernails. When I was a marathoner, I always had blisters on my feet and lost count of the toenails lost.

I have run dozens of 5ks, but now I’m aiming to do one this way. I even contacted the organizers of my favorite race that has never had a wheelchair competitor to find out if they would let me join in.

Their answer: “I’m sorry to hear of your health issues but I’m so happy to hear how motivated you are to carry on, it’s truly inspiring! In regards to the race, we are not responsible for any injuries that occur during the race and every participant must sign a liability waiver when signing up online or in person on race day. There are a few places on the 5k course that are not very even. I would encourage you to take a look at the course and determine if it is something you’re comfortable with before registering.”

I took that as a message to come on in but proceed at my own risk. I plan to do so. The other message: needing adaptive equipment doesn’t mean I am limited to adaptive events.

What if more runners, when faced with having to hang up their shoes for whatever reason, switched to wheelchair racing rather than cycling or swimming or giving up physical activity completely?

Here’s what I think would happen:

So-called disabled athletes would have more opportunities to participate in able-bodied sports and vice-versa. We would all realize that we are more alike than different, and that playing alone really isn’t very much fun.

In the course of my wheelchair racer training, I met a 17-year old woman with spina bifida. She may qualify to race in the Paralympic Games in London this year. She’s that fast, but, most of all, she would love to have someone to compete with at her high school. I believe that is possible. It would not have to be someone who has completely lost the use of his or her legs, but they would have to take it seriously. I believe stigma would be reduced. I believe adaptive sports would no longer be viewed as less than or easier. Even a volunteer at a wheelchair racing training session described the sport as a “second choice.” That’s unfortunate.

Having experienced wheelchair racing first hand, it’s harder than it looks, and I choose this sport over any other. Still having feeling in your legs, as I do, puts you at a disadvantage, but it’s doing wonders for my shoulders and triceps.

I believe that if people were more open to adaptive sports that not only would they discover new sports but continue longer in the ones they love.

My experience: the ski resort I contacted for help was so happy that someone would finally use the outriggers they had owned and had long been sitting in a closet. The instructors, all of whom had trained in adaptive skiing, practically competed for the opportunity to teach me that day. It was a bit overwhelming and one of the best ski days I have ever had. At the end of the day, I cried for joy. I had questions all day from people with various minor ills from age-related balance problems to dodgy knees asking if ski poles like that would work for them.

Why not? Welcome to the grey between the completely able-bodied and those who are not, also known as most of us. Adaptive sports are for us as well.

I know I’m less scared of what the future may bring. My health issues are unpredictable. I could wake up tomorrow morning able to train for a marathon. Or I could wake up blind, deaf, crazy and paralyzed, but it doesn’t matter. If I can’t ski standing up with outriggers, I can switch to a sit-ski. If I can’t do wheelchair racing, I can switch to scooter sports. Adaptive sports have taught me that no matter what happens I can still live a fun, fulfilled life. I get to belong. My friends are cheering me on, and I’m cheering them on too. I hear them. I hope they hear me.

I think adaptive sports would be helped out as well if more people, like me, made the phone call to say, “hey, I think I need some help here.”

One of the major barriers preventing participation in adaptive sports is money. A racing wheelchair costs thousands of dollars. The special gloves are about $160 a pair. Outriggers are $350, and much of the equipment is custom-built. There’s no reason this equipment can’t be mass produced and become less expensive, but in order to do so there need to be more people participating.

And no one should ever have to race by themselves. The slogan of adaptive sports associations is usually something like, “where the possibilities are endless” or “no one sits by the sidelines.” But what about: “no one races alone”?

Race with me.

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Photos by Karen Shoffner


Victoria Stagg Elliott is a writer in Chicago. She has competed in two marathons, one half-ironman triathlon and a stair-climbing race to the top of the Sears (now Willis) tower. She has two gold medals in figure skating and a bronze in swimming from the Gay Games. More from this author →