Paddlers Pave the Way - Despite Disabilities

As recent canoe and kayak competitions prove, disabled athletes can not only compete in able-bodied sports, they can excel

OLYMPIC medal-winning kayakers Greg Barton and Mike Herbert have changed the course of the United States Olympic Canoe and Kayak team. The team is now looking for more athletes like Barton and Herbert - more athletes, that is, who are classified as disabled.Barton and Herbert - who are competing this week as two of the top-ranked paddlers at the world championships in Paris - have shown that not only can disabled people compete in mainstream Olympics, they can excel. Some disabilities may even give them an edge on their able-bodied competitors. And so recruitment for the 1996 Olympic paddling team will not be limited to able-bodied athletes. "The Olympic governing body is taking a person for what they have, rather than for what they don't have," says Rod Hernley, chairman of the Committee on Sports for the Disabled. "It's an encouraging sign that able-bodied sports have begun looking at the potential of the disabled." This a distinct change from the 1960s and '70s, which saw the rise of separate athletic competitions for the disabled. It also reflects a significant rise in the athleticism of disabled athletes over the past 10 years, says Kirk Bauer, executive director of National Handicapped Sports. "We've come a long way," Mr. Bauer says. But "we need to continue enhancing the training programs." Increased awareness of the disabled athlete has already prompted Olympic training centers to add ramps and other facilities, he adds. Some disabilities obviously restrict athletes from competing equally against able-bodied people, but canoeing and kayaking provide a fair and equal test of determination and upper-body strength. "Water is truly the ultimate equalizer," says enthusiastic recreational kayaker Janet Zeller, who cannot walk and must be helped into and out of her craft. Paddlers with some lower-limb disabilities have an advantage over able-bodied competitors because of their strength-to-weight ratio, Hernley points out. Some lower-limb disabled have developed tremendous upper-body strength and a mental toughness in overcoming their disability. A disabled paddler who weighs 160 lbs. may have the upper-body strength of a 180-pound able-bodied athlete, says Eric Haught, chairman pro-tem of the US Canoe and Kayak Team's Board of Directors. Less weight in the boat means less water is displaced, meaning less drag, or resistance, on the boat. (As opposed to open water, whitewater racing - another Olympic event - requires more balance and agility, and could be more challenging to a disabled athlete.) "If you extrapolate the situation, in a four-man race you could use one person steering the boat and have three double amputees rowing," Mr. Haught says. The US Canoe and Kayak team is leading the way for other US Olympic sports such as swimming, archery, and luge, which are making plans to integrate disabled athletes. "The openness to integrate [in Olympic sports] is a reflection of the integration of the disabled into all aspects of life," says Ms. Zeller. And this prominent example of "mainstreamingwas not forced through legislation, but is more of a recognition that disabled people have wonderful contributions." "We've seen an opportunity to develop a new pool of Olympic athletes through the handicapped sector," says Craig Bohnert, US Canoe and Kayak Team communications director. Having a disabled athlete on the 1996 Olympic team will "open people's eyes," help correct misconceptions about disabled athletes, and no doubt create a stir in the disabled community, says Zeller, who instucts teachers and coaches on how to train disabled athletes on technique and self-rescue methods. "When I'm on the water, I'm admired for my skill," Zeller says. "My body, uncooperative on land, is slick and glides in the water. People are astonished when they see me lifted from my boat to my electric wheelchair." At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Greg Barton, who was born with clubbed feet, became the first American to win the single kayak 1,000-meter race. About an hour and a half after that race, he returned to the course with his partner and won the gold medal in the tandem kayak 1,000-meter event. Canoer Mike Herbert, who never fully recovered from a motorcycle accident that injured one leg, won two silver medals at last year's World Canoe and Kayak Championship. "Nobody who competes against Greg or Mike considers them disabled," says Haught. Training disabled athletes is similar to training able-bodied racers, says Vitale Bednov, a Washington Canoe Club coach. Mr. Bednov has more than 10 years' experience training paddlers in the Soviet Union. Disabled canoers and kayakers, like able-bodied paddlers, lift weights, swim, and bike - depending on their disability - as well as train long hours in the boat, practicing sprints and building stamina with long-distance paddling. The Olympic racing boats, designed by Composite engineering of Concord, Mass., are made from carbon fibers and other high-tech materials. The inside of each lightweight craft (and expensive - $2,000 for a single kayak; $5,000 for a four-man) is customized for each rower. Boats for disabled rowers may have an altered seat, footboard, or steering mechanism. The boats' manufacturer is exploring ways to add pontoons to the highly sensitive boats for training purposes. "There's a high level of determination and creative thinking" in the disabled racers, says kayak enthusiast Zeller. She speaks of a friend who says his biggest problem paddling is pushing his kayak through the mud in his wheelchair. The US Olympic Committee helps the US Canoe and Kayak Team by providing a $10,000 grant, which is applied to research, materials, and technology. "Our mission is to help our athletes perform better," says Andrew Kostanecki, chairman of the Sports Equipment and Technology Committee of the US Olympic Committee. @BODYTEXT = urrently, the canoe and kayak team's chore is recruiting racers for the 1996 Olympic team. The team is looking for 13- to 25-year-old men and women - be they abled or disabled - who are competitive and disciplined racers. "We're targeting a unique group of athletes who don't tend to be joiners of disabled groups," says Haught. "We have most all the pieces: Now we need the athletes." He hopes that promoting the team's innovative efforts will attract more people to the program. Janet Zeller says she is convinced the program will succeed, the 1996 Olympic team will be a winner, and people will no longer view disabled athletes as inferior. She concludes with great confidence, "You are measured by qualities, by the competition. A team that does well is never considered inferior."

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