On a Friday night, Teresa Skinner is in a narrow gym tucked in the back of Valley Christian School, where two young athletes – Lauren Fields and Jessica Bellefeuille – train on racing wheelchairs held in place on rollers.
Skinner keeps time while giving pointers on their form as they vigorously push the rear wheels with plastic-plated gloves, then coast with their arms outstretched behind them.
“Teresa saved my life,” Bellefeuille said while catching her breath between sprints. “She gave me an opportunity I never thought possible.”
Skinner, who founded ParaSport Spokane 10 years ago, has helped hundreds of athletes with physical disabilities across Spokane, across the country and around the world.
When she was an early career occupational therapist at a Spokane nursing home in the mid-1990s, she worked with a young man who was quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury.
Staff said he would be confined to the nursing home for the rest of his life.
But he was making progress, learning to dress himself, to get in and out of his chair on his own.
One day, when Skinner came to work, staff berated her for giving him false hope.
She felt terrible. Full of self-doubt and questioning her career choice, she called her mentors at Shepherd Center, a rehab hospital for spinal injuries in Atlanta where she had interned.
They reassured her she was in the right career, she just needed to start a wheelchair rugby team. Skinner objected. She didn’t know anything about wheelchair rugby, besides running the clock once at a tournament.
They told her what they tell patients all the time: “That’s nice. Do it anyway.”
So she did.
Skinner went to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center and asked for help starting a program. There, she found support from a community relations manager named Cheryl Brandt, and together they formed The Dukes of St. Luke’s quad rugby team.
Brandt, who is secretary of ParaSport Spokane’s board of directors, said Skinner’s passion was infectious.
In a few months, they raised enough money to buy athletic wheelchairs and to travel out of town to play other teams.
Skinner taught that patient how to play rugby. Eventually, he moved out of the nursing home and went to college.
Witnessing his transformation was addicting, she said.
Skinner got a taste of it in Atlanta when the city was gearing up to host the Olympics and Paralympics. Athletics was introduced early on to patients recovering at Shepherd Center.
“I firsthand witnessed the power that sport had in their lives and how much it brought back that fight to live and the fight to get better and just the joy of life,” Skinner said.
Skinner worked with St. Luke’s for 17 years, where she expanded the program to other sports. She specialized in coaching wheelchair racing, which she enjoys for the technical challenge and love of learning.
“This was about way more than sports,” Brandt said. “Teresa could see that.”
Sports opened doors by building confidence and resilience.
Skinner used every moment as an opportunity. While traveling to competitions with her athletes, she would take advantage of a layover to teach them how to ride an escalator in their wheelchair, said Nancy Starr, another board member and longtime volunteer.
“She truly believes sports are a catalyst for life,” Starr said.
Through her work, she has watched a generation of athletes grow up.
She worked with children like Susannah Scaroni, who was paralyzed by a car crash when she was 5 years old. A few years later, Skinner strongly encouraged her – or insisted, as Scaroni remembers it – to try adaptive sports. Scaroni didn’t think she was a competitive person, but deep down Skinner could see that she was.
Scaroni became a three-time Paralympian and gold medalist wheelchair racer who frequently wins Bloomsday and world-class marathons, like the Boston Marathon earlier this year.
“Teresa taught me that I have the power to be whatever I choose to be, even if it’s never been done before,” Scaroni said.
Skinner went on to achieve great success herself as a national coach for the U.S. Paralympic track and field team since Beijing in 2008.
This week she is in Santiago, Chile, for the Parapan American Games.
She also coaches servicemembers and veterans with the U.S. Air Force Wounded Warrior Program. As with civilians, sports can give wounded warriors purpose and confidence to move forward, Skinner said, by helping them focus more on what they can do rather than what they can’t .
“It is such an honor to be a part of that process and watch that happen,” she said.
Skinner had ambitions to continue growing adaptive sports locally beyond St. Luke’s. In 2013, she started ParaSport Spokane. Since then, it has gone from 13 athletes to 200 and has produced more than a dozen Paralympians. Numerous programs include wheelchair basketball, parafencing and sled hockey.
Looking back at the last 10 years, Skinner is adamant that she didn’t build this by herself. It took the support of 25 volunteers.
“Sometimes I wonder how I got that lucky to get that many people to dedicate so much time and energy and passion along with me,” she said.
She is proud of her volunteers, athletes and their families for their bravery.
“I’m proud of all of it,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”