Spina bifida left high school freshman Thomas Clark in a wheelchair, but that didn’t dampen his desire to participate in sports.
So with some help, the determined 14-year-old is now a member of the JL Mann track team, racing in a special chair.
“We had tried wheelchair basketball ... and a couple of other things, but nothing seemed to be the right fit for him,” his mom, Sarah Clark, told The Greenville News.
“But he was interested in doing something athletic and settled on track,” she added. “He’s really enjoying it. And totally loves being part of a team.”
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Thomas says with a laugh that he chose track because he was told that he was fast in his chair and he enjoyed the attention. He also wanted to participate in a team activity.
“During the school day, I’m off on my own. And then I’d just go home and do my homework, eat and go to bed,” he said. “I wanted to be on a team to get that experience.”
Another important motivator, his mom said, was paving the way for other disabled high school students to participate in the sport.
“I’ve noticed that in track, school-wise, there’s not a lot of athletes like me that race,” Thomas said. “I’m doing this for not only myself, but for others with disabilities.”
Making it happen
Spina bifida is a major birth defect in which the backbone surrounding the spinal cord fails to close as it should, often resulting in damage to the spinal cord and nerves, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has prevented Thomas from walking.
But after he expressed an interest in sports, his mom contacted Kristen Caldwell, a recreational therapist at Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital.
“She said, ‘He wants to join his high school track and field team,’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ ”
So Caldwell found people willing to lend Thomas a racing chair, which was a great help to the family, because they start at about $3,000 and aren’t covered by insurance.
She also contacted JL Mann track coach Glenn McAtee about the opportunities at school.
“JL Mann is a magnet school for special ed in Greenville County, including folks like Thomas who have a physical disability but no intellectual impairment,” McAtee said. “So there are lots of people in wheelchairs. But nobody who’s coming out for track.”
That means Thomas can only participate in the 100- and 400-meter races against able-bodied students in exhibition events, McAtee said.
“We have never had someone compete in wheelchair racing to the best of my knowledge and it sounds like this isn’t happening much statewide,” McAtee said. “In theory, you’re supposed to race against another person in a wheelchair.”
Even so, his mom said the family is glad that Thomas can race alongside his able-bodied teammates.
“He’s competing against himself,” she said. “He’s so excited that he took several seconds off from his first race to his second.”
A great team
Racing also gives him something other than school to focus on and is great for his physical health, she said.
His teammates, who are comfortable with differently-abled students, help Thomas when he needs it, for instance, changing from his regular chair to his racing chair, McAtee said.
“We’ve got great kids on our team, and it’s nothing for them to step in and help somebody,” he said. “And that’s just what they do.”
Thomas, who wears special rubber gloves to punch the wheels during competitions, is still learning how to use his new chair. But Caldwell, who is well-versed in adaptive cycling and other sports, says she doesn’t have much experience with wheelchair racing and there aren’t a lot of people in Greenville who do.
“It’s a tough sport. And it takes a lot of guts and discipline,” she said. “It’s sort of the blind leading the blind.”
Though she finally found someone in Charlotte to help, she’s still looking for instruction closer to home.
Because the 100 is a relatively short race, McAtee said the wheelchair athlete is at a disadvantage at the start because it takes him a lot longer to get going.
“We’re kind of feeling our way through it,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how he does when we get to 400, because the longer you go, the less of a time disadvantage you have in the chair.”
Caldwell, who helps up to 40 patients a year participate in recreational adaptive sports, said it’s important that disabled people stay active and don’t become socially isolated, as so often happens.
“I’m excited for him,” she said. “But the biggest thing that is so beneficial is that he’s part of a team because such an essential part of going to high school is being part of a group and the camaraderie and friendships that come from that.”
After his first meet on March 10, Thomas cut his time by seven seconds, Caldwell said.
“He did phenomenal,” she said. “I was so proud of him and so impressed.”
Recently, Thomas has been training for his first 400-meter race, which he says is a lot harder than the 100.
In the beginning, racing was frustrating because he had some technical difficulties with the chair, now he says he really enjoys it and has made lots of friends on his team.
The next thing everyone’s hoping for is some competition.
“Thomas is anxious for people to know this is possible,” Caldwell said. “That you can make it happen like he did ... so that we can get more students with disabilities out and competing in high school sports.”
Adds McAtee: “I’m hoping in the future that other kids will see these opportunities that Thomas is taking advantage of and will get interested in doing the same thing.”