Big Struggles Make For Big Wins

bsbwAndy stands at the starting line, poised to take off the first second he can. While his teammates all listen for the loud “bang!” of the starting gun, Andy instead watches for the smoke to come wafting out of it because he is profoundly deaf. As soon as he sees that glimpse of gray smoke, he’s off. In his three years on the track team, Andy has broken two high school records at McGann Mercy. “He has a stack of ribbons in his room,” says Crista Barker, his mother, “and in every race he was in, he finished in the top four. Usually the top two.”

Andy never let his deafness deter him from something he wanted to do, including running track and cross-country. “I was the only deaf person on the team,” he signs, “but we were all equals. The coach let me do everything everyone else did.” Andy’s interpreter would attend all his practices and games with him to sign all the rules and directions the coaches would give. Deafness simply wasn’t going to hold him back from playing the sports he enjoyed. “In fact,” he adds, “when I was on the wrestling team, my deafness was an advantage. There were always three matches going on at the same time, and I couldn’t hear the screams and whistles of the crowd that distracted the other players.”

Andy now attends the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis, where he plays on the basketball team and recently took scuba diving lessons. Is it better to have all your teammates deaf also? “It is easier to communicate,” admits Andy, “but playing on either team is great fun!”

Keep on Running

What’s it like to run around a track that you can barely even see? Marla Runyan cannot read a stopwatch or watch her own races on television without sitting right up against the screen, but she is still aiming for the next Olympics track and field trials. Runyan suffers from a degenerative (progressively worsening) health condition in her retina called Stargardt’s disease. She is legally blind, and when she runs, even though she wears special contacts, she still can barely see the track or the other runners except as blurs of color. Her vision problems started when she was only 9 years old. By the time she was 14, she could no longer see the soccer ball she was trying to kick, so she switched over to track and field. Soon, she achieved a new school record for the high jump. Though she has been running only a short time, she came in tenth in the 1996 Olympic heptathlon trials, setting a new national record for the 800-meter race, and did well in the 1999 Pan American Games.

Charlie Huebner, executive director of the United States Association for Blind Athletes, says, “Not all young blind kids are being told they can dream about something, so Maria is a good role model. If you have high expectations,” he adds, “anything is possible.”

No Stopping Now

All over the world, there are people with all kinds of mental and physical disabilities who aren’t going to let that slow them down for a moment. Just past March, Jean Driscoll of Champaign, Illinois, became first athlete to win eight Boston Marathons. Her time came in at 2 hours and 52 seconds, but Jean wasn’t running for those two hours she was pushing her wheelchair.

Dennis Oehler has become one of the fastest runners in the world, covering 100 meters in 11.73 seconds. Dennis does it with an artificial, carbon fiber right leg. He lost his leg in a car accident in 1984 and was devastated for some time until he went to the Paralympics, a worldwide competition for those missing a limb or paralyzed. When he saw the athletes there, he realized something about himself. “I thought it was a group of able-bodied runners showing others how to do it; then I saw they had the exact same thing as I did,” says Oehler. “That changed my life.”

Rolling Down the Track

The first National Wheelchair Games were held on Long Island in 1957 and have continued every year since, drawing thousands of competitors from around the world. Some of the most common events are the short-, mid-, and long-distance races, ranging from 100 to 10,000 meters. All the participants in these races are either missing one or both legs or their lower bodies are paralyzed to different degrees. These participants often have very strong upper bodies. They train throughout the year to make those muscles even stronger so they can push their wheelchairs fast! Can you imagine racing 100 meters in just 14.45 seconds–pushing a wheelchair? Though these wheelchairs are made especially light for racing, it is still an exhausting event!

Keeping fit and exercising is important to everyone, and, as these athletes have shown, having a disability is no excuse not to participate. Not everyone is going to be a star athlete, but everyone can keep on moving and staying healthy!


* Assign students to research accounts of other athletes who have managed to remain fit despite their disability. What obstacles did they have to overcome? What special equipment, competitive rules, or precautions were needed?

* Students might like to interview students in their own school or community who participate in the Special Olympics. Find out what their motivation is to participate and what special challenges they face. Interviewers also could talk to the coaches, family members, and friends who devote countless hours to preparation for these events. Have them share their findings with the class.

* Organize students to help promote a Special Olympics event in your school. Some students may want to help teachers of adaptive physical education classes and work with potential Special Olympians as a community service activity.

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