By John O’Donnell
A whistle blows and the countdown begins. The ball is thrown and then immediately lost in an intense commotion of iron and sweat. The clash of metal sends a thunderous boom throughout the gymnasium as the crowd cheers in excitement.
In the game of wheelchair rugby, it seems there is only one rule: hit or be hit.
With incredible speed and force the players slam into one another trying to dislodge the ball from their opponent’s hands, and race past the goal line. After witnessing such intense battles, sports without wheelchairs almost seem boring now.
The Wheelchair Sports Festival is an annual two day event, which enjoyed its 7th recurrence recently at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex.
Children, teenagers and adults alike competed in a series of wheelchair based events including rugby, wheelchair motocross, and hand cycling. Although the level of skill and ability varied between the players and participants, the spirit of community and competition was constant throughout the festival.
Among the star players of the Festival was Angelo Maus, 17, who held nothing back during his time on the court.
Maus was born with Spina Bifida, a spinal defect which left his lower body paralyzed and resulted in the amputation of his right leg. He has been wheelchair dependent his entire life, but Maus is not concerned about his situation.
“I never think about the struggle of the wheelchair,” said Maus. “If I ever come across something difficult, I just adapt to it or work around it.”
Instead of worrying about himself, Maus is a source of support to his friends at the festival.
“I always meet new people; some are scared to try out new sports so I like to encourage them.”
While rugby and handcycling were the most popular events at the festival, one of the less common sports was held on the lower levels of the facility; specifically, the skate park.
Wheelchair Motocross is the equivalent of wheelchair skateboarding, where riders use their chairs to cruise the slopes with the other skaters of Santa Clarita.
Many of the people who participated in WCMX were first time skaters, but one individual had clearly taken a lesson or two.
Festival volunteer Blake Simpson debuted his talents for everyone at the festival, speeding down the ramps and completing jumps with 180 degree rotations, a clear sign of passion from someone who has put a lot of work into something they love.
Simpson was an avid skateboarder prior to his spinal injury. But his life was completely changed when a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down almost 5 years ago.
“I was kind of shocked at first,” said Simpson. “All I cared about was that I couldn’t skate anymore, it was my whole life.”
Fortunately, this accident was not enough to keep Simpson down for good.
“I googled wheelchair skating and right when I saw it, I said ‘that’s it, that’s what I’m doing’ and that was my motivation to get through rehab and to relearn everything.”
The Wheelchair Sports Festival not only made an impact on the individuals who are wheelchair dependent, but also on those who are not. Spare wheelchairs were also provided so those who were not dependent could participate in the games as well.
This allowed people to develop a new and more personal insight into the world of wheelchair dependency, something that can be hard to fully understand for those who have never used a chair before.
For many people, life in a wheelchair is quickly adapted to and easily forgotten. However, there are some negative aspects of wheelchair dependency which are rather persistent throughout an individual’s life.
Tony Thogmartin, a participant at the festival, gave his own personal perspective on what he felt was the hardest part of life in a wheelchair.
“Most days I don’t think about it, but there are certain things that do cross my mind that kind of remind that I’m in a wheelchair. Like for instance, going to the beach. I have to plan for that, because I can’t just bring my wheelchair out on the beach. But some days you just want to go to the beach and sit down, you want to be spontaneous. That’s the hardest thing about being in a wheelchair, is being spontaneous.”
It is only natural for people to take certain luxuries and functions of life for granted as we live on through the years. But there is a new found appreciation for the simple things in life when individuals take the time to experience a new perspective of the world.
The Wheelchair Sports Festival is sponsored by Paul Mitchell and Asphalt Professionals, but was founded by the Triumph Foundation, a non profit organization dedicated to helping those who are afflicted by spinal cord injuries throughout their recovering process, by offering support through events like the Wheelchair Sports Festival.
The festival has grown dramatically since its meager beginnings just 7 years ago, and this year yielded the highest attendance of all. Its first year saw somewhere between 30 to 50 participants, but this year’s attendance reached more than 1,000 people, according to Kirsten Skinner, one of the cofounders of the Triumph Foundation.
Even though the primary draw of the festival is the opportunity for fierce and friendly competition, the real beauty of the experience shines through in the relationships and connections that are made in the community.
This festival is just one of the many ways to bring together, not just those who are wheelchair dependent, but also those who have never experienced life in a wheelchair. Friendships form, and a network of help and support is created for those who are having a hard time adjusting to their conditions.
The Wheelchair Sports Festival is brings together and helps hundreds of people every year, and it is an exciting day for everyone in attendance. It truly celebrates the values of friendship and positivity, all while expanding the perspectives of the people involved. Wheelchair dependent or not, we can all appreciate the power of competition and comradery.