I visited the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford this past week to help out at the Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp offered by the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain. The camp is coordinated by Janet Connolly from HSC (who we are very fortunate to have on the advisory board for Dylan’s Wings of Change). I knew I would see children challenged by physical disabilities getting the chance to practice a wide variety of different sports, trying new activities as well as honing the skills they use throughout the year. What quickly became evident was their amazing perseverance, courage, strength and humility. You could hear laughter and cheering, shouting and jeering. Coach Karin gave players a hard time for not focusing or skipping a drill and I had the opportunity to see it all from a new perspective.
It's said one path to an empathetic connection is to “walk a mile in someone else's shoes”. How about rolling a while using their wheels? The sports-chair pictured at the top of the page was mine for the morning. Organizer (and international wheelchair basketball player) Ryan Martin ordered me strapped into it right away - I was going to get the full camp experience. He teamed me up with my little “big buddy”, D. We started with a zig-zag warm up around cones in the gym and some seated stretching before heading out to the tennis courts. We worked on our serve; I learned that I drop my chin too soon - which will help my game no end if I fix it. We were then given a fast paced drill, hitting a forehand while controlling the chair, spinning around to rush for the backhand before turning again and getting back in line, over and over.
To get a break from the sun our group headed indoors and played badminton and volleyball. Then we were back outdoors on a tour dubbed “It’s not an accessible world.” Our instructor had us rolling up a grassy hill and grinding our chairs through sand. Trying to make it through the long-jump pit was a test of power and balance. We cheered everyone who attempted it, and it was uplifting when the campers urged on this able-bodied middle aged bloke who was just pretending for a few hours... 100% enthusiasm, no judgement… and no help either, you had to make it on your own. D was a bundle of energy and wouldn’t let me rest for a minute. It was his 4th year at the camp, having first attended when he was just 7 years old.
The real learning came when I was allowed to unstrap and get up from the chair for lunch. My first thoughts were of sore buttocks, blisters forming on my hands, and how my triceps were already starting to hurt. Then came the realization that this was just lame whining. No-one else was complaining about any of these things; they were moving on to the restaurant, bathroom and then afternoon activities as well. Those are just the tasks at camp, before traveling home and getting on with life. Stop and think now about the never ending challenges they are faced with, caused by spinal injuries, Cerebral Palsy and other debilitating conditions. These amazing kids won’t wake up one morning and be magically cured. They might not be full of laughter and joy all the time, but to see it that day was a gift.
Writing now, I realize that all these young athletes are naturally inclusive. They roll those miles every single day. I gave D one of the two wristbands I was wearing. He was certainly my Wingman and I'm so grateful I met him and learned a little of how to adapt. A huge shout out is also due to the dedicated High School and College volunteers who make this week possible for all the campers. I hope I remember this day every time I feel like complaining about... pretty much anything in my life.