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An athlete’s wish for Christmas: Statewide rules for adaptive sports competition in Michigan schools

We often know athletes for their wins in their sport, whether it be a 100 yard dash at a high school track meet or a Gold Medal at the Olympics. We learn their stories of sacrifice and extensive training. But “winning” in athletics has so many other meanings that each of us should take note of and appreciate.

On March 12, 2004, a young girl named Maria was brought into this world by her parents. Her mother was a professional rock climber from Russia, dad a talented athlete in his own right. Both shared the gift of intellect. Maria proved to be a daughter who loved to be challenged, leading her to participate in many sports. Her one younger and two older brothers helped challenge her in cross country, track, Tae Kwon Do, sailing, and cross-country skiing.

Maria’s love for athletics stemmed from her passion to improve her race times, the comradery of competing with her team, and the relationships she built with teammates. Her passion to better herself wasn’t just physical, it led to a 4.0 grade point average in the classroom. Her efforts shined through as she took 5th place in the U.P. Cross Country finals as a freshman on the Houghton High School team. Then something happened.

One day Maria went to school, and 30 minutes later, her arms felt heavy and her back hurt tremendously. She called her parents and asked to come home. By the time she arrived home, her legs were impacted and she had to be lifted out of the car. Her parents immediately took her to the hospital. A doctor recognized the serious symptoms and immediately airlifted her to the children’s hospital at University of Michigan. Maria, who at one point became a quadriplegic, spent 10 days in the intensive care unit, subject to a constant battery of tests and treatments. The diagnosis – transverse myelitis, a neuro-immune disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.

The doctors were unsure how much function would return to Maria’s limbs as she began a regimen of physical and occupational therapy three times a day. Maria’s competitive spirit and support from her team, friends, and family were her motivation to gain back the strength and mobility necessary to compete again.

Maria’s rehabilitation efforts have brought her to walking with a cane, a phenomenal personal accomplishment. She has returned to competition as an adaptive athlete. She races track in a three wheeled chair powered by her arms turning the wheels as she sits, while taking on cross country courses using her arms to turn pedals that propel her forward.

Maria has been winning many adaptive competitions regionally and nationally, such as the Jr. Nationals in Denver in July. She has also raced locally with her Houghton HS track team in WestPac meets. Wherever she races, she inspires others and peers with and without adaptive challenges, as other adaptive racers have inspired her efforts. But something has been missing.

In 35 states, there currently exist rules that allow adaptive athletes to compete with non-adaptive athlete team members. Adaptive athletes can earn points for their teams in meets as single racers racing against national qualifying times, or by placing in races against other adaptive athletes. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) has no such rules.

Houghton-Portage Schools Athletic Director John Sanregret has proposed rule changes to the MHSAA regarding adaptive athletes’ ability to compete, catching up with the other 35 states. MHSAA member K-12 districts now need to collectively approve this change at their January meeting to allow adaptive athletes to officially compete and earn points at all levels of competition.

Maria’s wish: Make it possible for all adaptive athletes to compete and contribute to their teams’ successes. She knows this will encourage other adaptive athletes to join their schools’ teams, contributing to the growth of both the individual and the team. I encourage individuals in all Michigan communities to help Maria’s wish come true by telling your K-12 district Athletic Director to support statewide rules for adaptive sports at all levels. You can also directly support this wish at https://www.change.org/iamanathletetoo, where you will find links to the proposal and instructions on how your district can petition the MHSAA.

Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.

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