Adapted sports program aims to level the playing field for high school athletes

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Prior to suffering a brain hemorrhage on July 24, 2017, Ruby Melchior was a first year pole vaulter on her high school track team. But a lot has changed since then.

Ruby, now 17, had to relearn how to breathe, eat and speak after her brain injury, and she now uses a wheelchair. But one thing that hasn’t changed for Ruby is her participation in athletics. High school student Scripps Ranch High School is now training for the spring track and field season as a seated shot put athlete. She hopes to make it to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Championships in Clovis in May.

Ruby’s return to athletics was made possible by San Diego Challenge Athletes Foundation, which officially launched its High School Adapted Sports Program for middle and high school students with disabilities. Eighteen “para-athletes” from San Diego and Orange County high schools attended the first of six consecutive Sunday morning sessions at Clairemont High School, where they will train for the track season. spring from their school.

Ramona High School student Josiah Attore, left, chats with Paralympian Erik Hightower at an adapted sports clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation at Clairemont High on January 12, 2020.

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Under state law, students with disabilities also have the right to participate in athletics, but most public high schools do not have the proper equipment, coaching expertise and time to train. training to work with students. In 2016, the CIF began allowing students with disabilities in wheelchairs and ambulatory to participate in the track and field championships, but participation was minimal.

In each of the past four years, only 16-18 para-athletes have competed at the ICF Championships. With the new high school adaptive sports program, officials of challenged athletes are hoping those numbers will start to rise.

“We know there are 600,000 high school students with disabilities in the United States, so there are a lot of students missing out. It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Nancy Reynolds, principal. business development for Challenged Athletes.

The new program was tested last January at Clairemont High with just eight students, including Ruby, who said she never thought she could compete again.

“I didn’t know how to participate, but I found out last year that I could,” she said on Sunday. “I like this program because it allows me to participate in school activities and it’s a way to make a lot more friends. I am delighted to start the season again.

Encinitas’ 16-year-old Joel Gomez was also eagerly awaiting the kickoff on Sunday. Born legally blind, he is an online student at Classical Academy High School in Escondido and a top runner. Last year, he won gold medals in the 400 and 1,500-meter races at the World Junior Para-Athletics Championships and 11th place in the 1,500-meter race at the World Para-Athletics Championships. in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Joel said he was excited about the high school adaptive sports program because it empowers students and changes the public’s perception of people with disabilities.

“Events like this are really important. It lets these students know that there is a place for them in the world of sport, ”he said. “I like it when people are surprised when they see me running because it shows that we can compete with the best of the best.”

Ruby Melchior, a student at Scripps Ranch High, works on her shot put technique at an adapted sports clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation at Clairemont High on January 12, 2020. Melchior, a former pole vaulter, suffered a brain injury and is now training in the seated shot put.

Ruby Melchior, a student at Scripps Ranch High, works on her shot put technique at an adapted sports clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation at Clairemont High on January 12, 2020. Melchior, a former pole vaulter, suffered a brain injury and is now training in the seated shot put.

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Long-term goals for the new program are to hold annual six-week training sessions for para-athletes in the 10 CIF sections in California. This year, the program is only offered in San Diego and the Bay Area, where 12 para-athletes began training Sunday in San Lorenzo.

The $ 500,000 program provides six weeks of free training by world and nationally ranked Paralympians and Para-athletes in wheelchair races, ambulatory sprints, and sit and ambulatory throw. It offers season-long loans of racing wheelchairs and shot put seats and has online training videos. It will provide scholarship opportunities for students who wish to acquire their own equipment and travel funds for competitions. And it will also provide resources for parents, coaches, school administrators and health care providers.

The six-week training program in San Diego was funded by Paula Whalen, who funded several adapted surf clinics from Challenged athletes in memory of her husband, Ken Whalen. In 2013, he discovered CAF and was so inspired by his athletes that he was planning to participate in the foundation’s 2014 Million Dollar Challenge bike ride when he suffered a stroke and died at the age 48. Paula said her late husband graduated from Clairemont High School. , so he was there in spirit on Sunday.

Among the coaches who train the local student-athletes is runner Kym Crosby-Hightower, 26, of Chula Vista. Visually impaired since birth, she won a bronze medal in the 100 meters at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil. She said the program could prove to be a landmark event for disabled high school students in California.

“I spoke to students who didn’t even know there were sports available to them. Knowing that they can compete is huge, ”she said. “I really think it will increase participation in high school athletics.”

CAF’s Reynolds said that in the year since they hosted the trial of the program, she has seen amazing results.

“Confidence has been the most important thing for these kids, and the camaraderie that I have seen in their track teams, and even from the teams they are competing against, has been so special to watch.” , said Reynolds. “It makes everyone better. “

For more information on the high school sports program, visit challengedathletes.org/hsadaptivesports/.


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