Paralympic athletes shooting for awareness

Published: July 27, 2004
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Don’t pity the women on the USA Wheelchair Basketball team.

That’s the message from South University’s Mary Vacala, appointed to the medical staff for the Paralympic Games in Greece this September.

The Paralympic Games is a parallel competition for athletes with disabilities and takes place about two weeks after the Olympics.

“There is life after Disability,” Vacala said. “Athletes are special people. They look at the bright side and don’t indulge in self-pity.”

But the biggest mistake the public makes regarding athletes with disabilities is to feel sorry for them, said Vacala, department chair for South University’s Physician Assistant Studies programs and a practicing physician assistant in Savannah.

“Most people say, ‘Poor, pitiful people in wheelchairs.’ But they are not,” Vacala added. “They are phenomenal athletes.”

Thanks to help from Vacala, the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team will be in Savannah this week to prove that athletes with disabilities also can go by another title: simply athletes. In wheelchair basketball, the basic rules and dimensions, including the height of the basket, are the same as in able-bodied basketball.

“Once in the gym, these athletes train just as hard (as Olympic athletes). Their quest is to win the gold,” Vacala said. “The only difference is what it takes for them to get to the gym.”

The team will participate in an exhibition game with the BlazeSports Club of Savannah wheelchair basketball team and a team of local VIPs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Jenkins High School gym. Memorial Health University Medical Center and South University are sponsoring the event.

Many of the wheelchair team members have spinal cord injuries and have been paralyzed only for a few years. Others, such as Christina Ripp, a University of Illinois student whose disability is from the birth defect spina-bifida, didn’t have to adjust from being able-bodied to being a wheelchair-user.

Ripp, who turns 24 on Saturday, not only competes on the basketball team, but was the Boston Marathon wheelchair winner in 2003. She also tries to show other wheelchair-users how to have a completely independent life, including driving.

In the Savannah area, Motor vehicle crashes and diving accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries, said Kathy Kleinsteuber, director of The Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Health.

In addition to providing acute care for such patients, the Rehabilitation Institute tries to educate primary care physicians to the challenges people with disabilities face – such as frequent urinary tract infections, blood pressure problems, bedsores that become more complicated or the simple challenge of how to get up on an doctor’s exam table.

The institute also tries to help the patients have fulfilling lives by offering support groups and wheelchair basketball and tennis teams.

“It’s amazing what these individuals are able to do,” Kleinsteuber said. “Especially when you try to manage the (wheel) chair and take a shot with the basketball without using your legs. You really appreciate how athletic these people have to be.”

As Vacala was beginning to work with athletes with disabilities, their struggles hit even closer to home when her longtime friend became a quadriplegic after breaking her neck in an accident.

In caring for her friend, Vacala learned of the need for better medical treatment for people with disabilities. Medical staff often are unfamiliar with complications people with disabilities face.

Vacala added a course to the curriculum of South University’s physician assistant program called “Orthopedics and the Physically Challenged Patient.”

The Paralympic team is hoping for the same quality, handicap-accessible conditions in Athens as they experienced at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Vacala said. But not every city is handicap-friendly.

During the games in Atlanta, the Paralympic Organizing Committee received little help from their Olympic counterparts, the BBC reports. Athletes complained about the Olympic Village facilities and the city’s transport system.

Paralympic athletics

The 2004 USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team will participate in an exhibition game with the BlazeSports Club of Savannah wheelchair basketball team and a team of local VIPs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Jenkins High School gym, 1800 DeRenne Ave. It’s one of the USA team’s final appearances before it competes in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

Tickets are $1 and are available at The Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Health University Medical Center. Proceeds benefit the USA Women’s Paralympic Basketball Team and the BlazeSports Club of Savannah. Memorial Health and South University are sponsoring the event.

To purchase tickets or register for the camp, call 350-7268 or 350-7099.

Paralympics time line

The Paralympic Games is a parallel competition for athletes with disabilities, and will take place about two weeks after the conclusion of the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

The Paralympics started as a rehabilitation program for British war veterans with spinal injuries, the BBC reports. In 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttman, a neurologist working with World War II veterans with spinal injuries, began using sports as part of rehabilitation for his patients, setting up a competition with other hospitals to coincide with the London Olympics that year.

The plan was adopted by other spinal injury groups in Britain, and competition grew. In 1960, the Olympics were held in Rome, and Guttmann brought 400 wheelchair athletes to compete. The modern Parallel Olympics – or Paralympics – were formed.

Past locations

1948 – Stoke Mandeville, England

1960 – Rome, Italy

1964 – Tokyo, Japan

1968 – Tel Aviv, Israel

1972 – Heidelberg, Germany

1976 – Toronto, Canada

1980 – Arnhem, Netherlands

1984 – Stoke Mandeville & New York

1988 – Seoul, Korea

1992 – Barcelona, Spain

1996 – Atlanta

2000 – Sydney, Australia

Source: BBC News