Making it to the Olympic Games has been a dream for some athletes all over the world for more than a century. Athletes practice and sacrifice for their sport with the hopes of traveling to the next games and finding glory in a bronze, silver or gold medal.
Hand in hand with those games every two years – the Winter and Summer Games switch off – is the Paralympic Games, athletes with disabilities compete for their own, hard-earned glory.
Five members of Team St. Luke’s are one step closer to competing in London in 2012. They are traveling to Christchurch, New Zealand, in January to compete in the 2011 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships.
“It’s not just a trip,” said Teresa Skinner, the coach of Team St. Luke’s. “It’s the Paralympic World Championship.”
Amberlynn Weber, 16, Austin Pruitt, 16, Christine Nielson, 19, Kasey Andrews, 18 and Chelsea McClammer, 16, have earned a place on the team, as well as Skinner, who will be one of the assistant coaches for the track and field team.
Weber and Pruitt, both juniors at Central Valley High School, will compete in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. Nielson, a graduate of North Central High School, is racing in the 100 and 200 meters. Andrews, a graduate of Riverside High School, is racing the 100 and 400. Weber and McClammer are alternates for the 4x400 relay.
Weber has been on the team since she was 7 and talked Pruitt into joining the team about three years ago.
Skinner has been the coach of Team St. Luke’s for 15 years. She said starting kids in wheelchair games early in life is important, so she recruits children as young as 6.
“They don’t ever grow up thinking they can’t do sports,” Skinner said of kids who start young in wheelchair sports. Persuading both the athletes and their parents can be hard, but Skinner and Nicole Stewart, director of marketing and communications at Inland Northwest Health Services, agreed that sports for kids in wheelchairs has the same effect that it does on kids who can walk – their self-esteem goes up as well as their grades.
Pruitt agrees. Ranked second in the world in his racing class, last year his grades were his best. When he received his report card, he was very proud.
“He framed it,” Weber said of her friend.
The athletes compete in different classifications, based on their disability. Pruitt was born with cerebral palsy and races in that classification. Weber had cancer, neuroblastoma, when she was 6 months old, which blocked a nerve in her spine. She races against athletes with similar injuries
“I would never race a guy like her,” Pruitt explained.
Preparing for the games in January will take a lot of work and training. For starters, the team will travel to Chula Vista, Calif., several times during the coming months for training, blood draws, physicals, classes on nutrition and uniform sizing.
The team just returned from the first trip to California.
“The training was really good,” Weber said. “They had a really nice facility.”
She said that many days started off at 7 a.m. and they would train until 8 p.m.
They will also miss a lot of classes at school, but the students have worked with their teachers so they can keep up with the class.
“My parents set up a meeting with all of my teachers,” Pruitt said. He’ll have homework to do before and during the competition that he can e-mail to his teachers.
Skinner said the team will also be training hard in the coming months.
“Torture,” she joked. “Lots of it. Tons of it.”
Pruitt agreed with the level of training.
“It wasn’t hard, it was 10 levels above hard,” he said.
The team practices in Spokane – Weber, Pruitt, Nielson and Andrews are based here, but McClammer lives in the Tri-Cities, where she is a junior at Richland High School. Skinner said she often coaches her via Skype on the computer.
“It’s preparing to go to London,” McClammer said. “It’s a higher level of competition.”
The team members all have hopes to go to London for the 2012 Paralympic Games. McClammer said she wants to go on to Rio in 2016, too.
They are also still junior members of the team, so they have a long future in racing. Skinner said she hopes the kids make the final races, but knows that older racers with more experience have a better chance.
“If they make the finals I’m going to be ecstatic,” Skinner said.