NHSCA
 
National High School Coaches Association

SPECIAL ATHLETES

 

 

 

SPECIAL ATHLETES

Some people are able to disregard what others would call a disability and shine in what they do. These athletes have been able to push past their handicaps to compete at levels others would have thought impossible for them. 

 

 Wheelchair to Swimming Pool  |  Worth the Wait  |  Wrestling With No Arms or Legs

Wheelchair to Swimming Pool

Imagine trying to swim with only half of your body. Sounds like a one-way ticket to a watery grave, but it's something that Jackson High junior Joel White does on a regular basis.

For most of White's average day he is confined to a wheelchair that's to spina bifida, a condition that he has had to deal with from birth, but in the water he keeps up with the best of them. He won five events at the National Junior Sports Festival swim meet in New London, Conn. in late June.

Competing against other with disabilities, including at least a couple that did not have use of their legs, White set two meet records in grabbing his five wins.


"I knew that I would be pretty competitive," White said. "I was pretty confident, but the two records were in events that I least expected. That's what was amazing to me."


One of those unexpected records came in the 50-meter butterfly in which he swam a 1:05. His previous best had been a 1:27. He also set a new mark in the 200-freestyle.


"I had a lot of adrenaline," White offered. "I wanted to win."


He also earned victories in the 50-freestyle, the 100-freestyle and the 50-breaststroke.


The performance drew praise from his coach, Rob Steinberg.


"He set two national records and those records were set by some people that have gone on to swim in the world championships at the senior level," Steinberg said. "Because of his seed times he was raving against older kids and kids with lesser disability. He far exceeded out expectations. We couldn't have asked for a whole lot more."


Spina bifida is something that White has dealt with his entire life.


"When I was born there was a hole in part of my spine and I had to have surgery to get it connected," White explained. "Because of the way my spine is it damaged nerves in my back and so my legs aren't very strong to where I can't move them to walk."


Despite his disabilities, White has been active his whole life. He played for years wither the Challenger Baseball program and five years ago started swimming regularly with the Special Olympics program, the Stark Sharks.


"I've always like the water," he said, "The first thing was that I learned how to float. They taught me how to float in the Special Olympics, and the different strokes. My upper body has gotten strong enough that I can get moving and stay on top of the water."


As if to compensate for not having use of his legs, White's upper body is solid and muscular.


"The upper body is the sole source of momentum for a push off, a turn, a start and the stroke itself," Steinberg said. "When it is your upper body, that's and incredible feat alone."


After swimming with the Sharks program, White started swimming for Jackson program as a freshman and he quickly made an impression on Polar Bear coach Jack Gardner.


"He's a remarkable kid," Gardner said "He has the heart of a lion. He's always moving forward. Out team loves him."


It was a little over a year and a half ago that White decided to take his swimming to the next level. That was when he joined Sam Seiple's Canton City Schools program and came under the direction of Steinberg.


White credits much of his success to the CCS program and Steinberg.


"I've made a lot of friends," White Said. "My time is dropping and my training is the best it has ever been."


With his performance in Connecticut still a recent memory, White has his next goal set.


"Right now I want to keep training hard and next July I want to go to Long Beach, California for the Para Olympic Trials," White said.


"That's the Olympics for disabled people. I just want to train hard and get to that."

 

 

Worth the Wait


Why do they come? Why do they hang around to watch the slowest high school cross-country runner in America? Why do they want to see a kid finish the 3.1 miles in 51 minutes when the winner did it in 16?
 

Why do they cry? Why do they nearly break their wrists applauding a junior who falls flat on his face almost every race? Why do they hug a teenager who could be beaten by any other kid running backward? Why do they do it? Why do all of his teammates go back out on the course and run the last 10 minutes of every race with him? Why do other teams do it too? And the girls' teams? Why run all the way back out there to pace a kid running like a tortoise with bunions?


Why?  Because Ben Comen never quits.


See, Ben has a heart just slightly larger than the Chicago Hyatt. He also has cerebral palsy. The disease doesn't mess with his intellect --he gets A's and B's - -but it seizes his muscles and contorts his body and gives him the balance of a Times Square drunk. Yet there he is, competing for the Hanna High cross- country team in Anderson, S.C., dragging that wracked body over rocks and fallen branches and ditches. And people ask, Why?


"Because I feel like I've been put here to set an example," says Ben, 16. "Anybody can find something they can do --and do it well. I like to show people that you can either stop trying or you can pick yourself up and keep going. It's just more fun to keep going."


It must be, because faced with what Ben faces, most of us would quit.


Imagine what it feels like for Ben to watch his perfectly healthy twin, Alex, or his younger brother, Chris, run like rabbits for Hanna High, while Ben runs like a man whacking through an Amazon thicket. Imagine never beating anybody to the finish line. Imagine dragging along that stubborn left side, pulling that unbending tire iron of a leg around to the front and pogo-sticking off it to get back to his right.


Worse, he lifts his feet so little that he trips on anything --a Twinkie-sized rock, a licorice-thick branch, the cracks between linoleum tiles. But he won't let anybody help him up. "It messes up my flow," he says. He's not embarrassed, just mad.


Worst, he falls hard. His brain can't send signals fast enough for his arms to cushion his fall, so he often smacks his head or his face or his shoulder. Sometimes his mom, Joan, can't watch.


"I've been coaching cross-country for 31 years," says Hanna's Chuck Parker, "and I've never met anyone with the drive that Ben has. I don't think there's an inch of that kid I haven't had to bandage up."


But never before Ben finishes the race. Like Rocky Marciano, Ben finishes bloody and bruised, but never beaten. Oh, he always loses --Ben barely finishes ahead of the sunset, forget other runners. But he hasn't quit once. Through rain, wind or welt, he always crosses the finish line.


The other day Ben was coming in with his huge army, Ben's Friends, his face stoplight red and tortured, that laborious gait eating up the earth inch by inch, when he fell not 10 yards from the line. There was a gasp from the parents and a second of silence from the kids. But then Ben went through the 15-second process of getting his bloody knees under him, his balance back and his forward motion going again --and he finished. From the roar you'd have thought he just won Boston.


Ben can get to you that way. This is a kid who builds wheelchair ramps for Easter Seals, spends nights helping at an assisted-Iiving home, mans a drill for Habitat for Humanity, devotes hours to holding the hand of a disabled neighbor, Miss Jessie, and plans to run a marathon and become a doctor. Boy, the youth of today, huh?


Oh, one aside: Hanna High is also the home of a mentally challenged man known as Radio, who has been the football team's assistant for more than 30 years. Radio gained national attention in a 1996 Sports Illustrated story by Gary Smith and is the hero of a major movie that opens nationwide on Oct. 24.


Feel like you could use a little dose of humanity? Get yourself to Hanna. And while you're there, go out and join Ben's Friends.


You'll be amazed what a little jog can do for your heart.


 

Wrestling With No Arms or Legs


I bet you Michael Johnson's high school track coach thought he was the luckiest coach in the world. Or perhaps the high school coaches of Herschel Walker, Larry Bird, Barry Bonds and Dan Gable thought they were the most fortunate for having a "one of a kind" athlete on their team. Well, they were all wrong. I am the luckiest coach anywhere because I have Kyle Maynard on my wrestling team.


Who is Kyle Maynard? Kyle Maynard has been my JV 95 / 103 pounder for the last two years. This past season, his sophomore year, Kyle raised his total JV record to 28-8 after winning the King of the JV Hill Tournament, the largest and toughest junior varsity tournament in Georgia.


So Kyle has a pretty decent high school career going, but how can I say that he makes me the luckiest coach anywhere? Well, he has this physical condition which hinders him at times. Oh, I know there are many stories of handicapped athletes who have been successful, like some state wrestling champions or national champions with one or no legs. Sorry, Kyle sets the standard for physically impaired athletes who have experienced success.


Kyle was born with no legs, only two small feet turned at weird angles where the tops of the femurs are supposed to be. That can be a pretty severe handicap, but try wrestling with no legs ... and no fingers, no hands and no elbows! He was born with stubs for arms that stop a few inches above where his elbows should be. So basically, Kyle competes using a neck, two shoulders, a very intelligent brain, and an enormous heart.


And he wins. As I mentioned earlier, Kyle has two successful JV seasons under his belt. He actually has a chance to be our varsity 103 pounder for at least part of the time over the next two seasons. And that is on a team which has one state championship and two third place finishes over the last three years in the state's largest classification.


We have tried to invent and reinvent when it comes to technique for Kyle. But almost all of the credit for the "inventions" goes to Kyle. Most conventional moves do not work for him, so Kyle will do some pretty strange things on the mat. Sometimes it looks like he is doing a breakdance right before he leeches on to a leg.


Don't feel sorry for Kyle - he might be the meanest kid on our team (but only while competing). He uses his head and face like a battering ram and his arms like little clubs. The opponents who feel sorry for him usually end up bleeding and watching the referee raise Kyle's arm after the match.


Do be amazed by Kyle. I'm amazed every day I see him. I am amazed when I see him "run" with the rest of the team, which for Kyle is more like a bear crawl. I am amazed when I see him eat with forks and spoons. I am amazed when I see him write with much better "handwriting" than anyone on the team. I am amazed when I see him type at the computer faster then a lot of people ... he is also an "A" student in all honors classes.


But I am most amazed when I see him in our wrestling room ... which brings me back to the point I previously made about being the luckiest coach in the world. Kyle is an inspiration to the coaches and the wrestlers on our team every single day. He doesn't miss practice. He never complains. He is one of the more vocal leaders on the team. He jokes around and horseplays just like any other kid (he is especially good at the age-old prank of sneaking up behind someone to let an accomplice push someone over him). And on a scale of one to ten for being a hard worker, Kyle is a 10.


And there have been numerous instances where I have used Kyle as an example and a teaching tool ... A couple of examples: A kid might come to me during a grueling practice and say, "Coach, my knee is killing me. Can I sit out and ice it?" If I think the knee problem is minor, I'll point at Kyle and say, "I bet he wouldn't mind having a bad knee right now. Do you think you could wait until the end of practice for the ice?" Or another kid might inquire about sitting out due to a hyperextended elbow, and I'll look at Kyle and say, " I imagine he would take two hyperextended elbows for just one day." The kid's elbow usually starts feeling a little better.


I have been coaching for 26 years and have never coached or seen a kid who has a bigger impact on the people with whom he has contact - not just the young people and adults in our wrestling program: people associated with any opposing team are amazed and inspired as well. Therefore, I think I am correct when I say I am the luckiest coach in the world. Well not exactly. I am not lucky. I have been blessed. God has sent a blessing to a wrestling team in Suwanee, Georgia, in the form of a two and a half-foot tall giant of a person.