July 29, 2002
Adaptive Sports Stoke Spirit
By SOPHIA HOLLANDER
Helene Hines lay still on the ground and tried to feel her legs. A 30-year-old physical education teacher, she stared across the court, where her husband and friends continued to play tennis, wondering what she had snapped in her neck or strained in her nervous system when she moved forward to smack the ball. She felt numbness spreading through her body.
Surely it was an orthopedic problem or an unusual twist — something that would heal in time. The other players played on, while Hines watched from her prone position. She was later able to walk off the court, but seven weeks later she could no longer walk. She was found to have multiple sclerosis, and her physical therapist told her she would never walk again.
Then she met Dick Traum, the founder of the Achilles Track Club, who told her she could run a marathon. He was wrong: 24 years after her first collapse, Hines has run 27.
The Achilles Track Club, an organization dedicated to the promotion of running among disabled athletes, is one of more than 20 groups in New York that support adaptive sports, games tailored to the needs of participants.
Though some sports lend themselves more easily to manipulation than others, the activities range from basketball, softball and fencing to ultimate frisbee, ice skating and golf. Some benefits, therapists, athletes and program directors say, are the same as for non-disabled athletes. But these activities can also offer what Richard Brodie, director of the New York Therapeutic Riding Center, calls "a hidden therapy," for both physical and emotional ailments.
"A lot of our kids have spent so much time in hospitals," Brodie said last week, as he stood in the steamy, pungent riding stable on the Upper East Side watching three horses — carrying small children — plod around a small indoor track. "This is something non-disabled kids do, too."
Riding horses helps stretch the rider's inner thigh muscles and improve posture. One boy, he said, arrived at the stables curled into a ball, his legs rigidly pressed together. Volunteers laid him across the horse to ride. By the end of the summer, he was sitting in a saddle.
"I think sports does for them what it does for everyone," said Penny Shaw, director of Project HAPPY, an athletics program offered through Hunter College in conjunction with Easter Seals. "It's an arena for competitive feelings, for energy, just moving around instead of sitting in front of a television set. All of the aggression and competition that is in sports is part of a normal development for many children, and they need it."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a softball field in Central Park became another place for a handful of men in wheelchairs to forget their daily routine, in which they deal with the raised voices of well-meaning people who believe that cerebral palsy impairs hearing, or health club patrons who worry that multiple sclerosis is a contagious disease.
Calvin Brown leaned into the plate. The pitch sliced inside, grazing his hand. He threw the bat down, spun fiercely toward the pitching rubber, then charged, waving his arms wildly. Brown, the umpire, and everyone in the stands howled with laughter.
"It was all good fun," said Brown, 29. "I like all kinds of sports. If it has competitiveness, it's fun."
When Shaw runs basketball games, volunteers will frequently climb into chairs to join the game. By the end they crawl out, arms aching, blisters forming on their fingers.
"I've been maintaining lately that the people who get the most out of this program are the volunteers," Shaw said. "People in the community become more comfortable with disabilities when they come against it. The volunteers say it changes their lives."
Brad Keller is one such volunteer. When he was 19, hitchhiking his way across the country to ultimate frisbee tournaments, the driver of his van fell asleep at the wheel, then jerked awake and sent the vehicle rolling across the Arizona desert. Keller's face, which became caught on a jagged edge of metal, was partially torn off as he was thrown from the van. He awakened five days later from a coma, blind in one eye and his face rebuilt with plastic bones.
"We're still trying to discover the extent of my mental capabilities," he said.
Keller enrolled in Hunter College to begin retraining his brain, and met Shaw, who tried vainly to recruit him as a volunteer. One day he dashed onto a subway train, bowling over a woman holding several boxes. He looked down, horrified, then realized it was Shaw.
"I was just going to call you!" she said, as they picked up the packages. The boxes were filled with frisbees. "Now you have to join us."
Twenty years later, Keller has founded Discabilities, which promotes disc sports in and around New York City. He is now developing a plan to go into public schools and work with those adaptive athletes regularly.
Hines has also reached out to others. Four years ago she became too dizzy to run; she now uses a hand-crank wheelchair. With three wheels, the seat angled back and her legs, slender coils in black spandex, extended forward onto supports, she propels the vehicle forward by turning a crank in front of her chest.
She started a hand-crank training group for other athletes in conjunction with the Achilles Track Club and now works with close to 50 athletes, ranging from those who have multiple sclerosis to 19-year-old Miroslav Legin, whose legs were blown off six years ago when he tripped a mine while walking near his house in Sarajevo. Hines, who also teaches a swimming class for those with multiple sclerosis, is still a fierce competitor.
Looking over her students she said gleefully: "I can beat them all.
Isn't that great?"
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company