Wheels on the Track

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.8, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1408/bbwheels.htm

Atholton High School in Columbia, Md., is one of the few schools in the country that can boast of having a world-class athlete in its halls. Junior Tatyana McFadden won silver and bronze medals in the 2004 Paralympic Summer Games. However, she had to get a court order before she could compete alongside her teammates on the Atholton girls’ track and field team.

McFadden, who is paralyzed from the waist down, brought suit against Howard County Public Schools, which allowed wheelchair athletes to compete only in events with other wheelchair athletes. Her suit did not ask for her results to be scored, simply that she be allowed to race alongside her teammates. In April, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction allowing her to compete on the track at the same time as able-bodied runners.

“I wanted to have the same high school experience as everyone else, and I wanted to get the feel for competition,” McFadden told The Associated Press after her first race of the season. “This was really important to me, and I wanted everyone to see how I ran and how hard I worked to get here.”

For McFadden and her teammates, however, the season ended on a difficult note. McFadden was accused of pacing a teammate during the 1,600-meter race at the state finals. Her teammate’s winning finish was thrown out, and the loss of first-place points moved Atholton from first to third.

Both McFadden’s court case and the controversy over her role at the state meet raise a question that many schools and state associations have struggled with: Should wheelchair athletes be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied athletes in high school track and field? There is no easy answer, and even supporters of competitive opportunities for wheelchair athletes often disagree about how to best accommodate their needs and desires.

Louisiana and Oregon are two states that have taken different approaches. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association includes wheelchair events in its meets. Disabled athletes can earn points for their teams, but compete only in wheelchair events. The Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA), on the other hand, allows wheelchair track athletes to compete alongside able-bodied runners at all meets except the state championships, but does not count their scores.

“There’s debate within the disabled sports community about the best approach, just as there is among athletic directors,” says Kevin Hansen, President of World Wheelchair Sports. “The important thing is that we keep the discussion going.”

Ian Jaquiss, Executive Director of Oregon Disability Sports, would like to see more states follow Louisiana’s lead. Faced with the argument that there are not enough wheelchair athletes to make this feasible, Jaquiss says that if you build it, they will come.

“The problem is not that there are only a handful of kids out there capable of competing in wheelchair events—there are too many kids with disabilities not doing anything,” he says. “And if you let them score, it will be in the school’s best interest to get every kid who’s capable out there competing.”

While some competitive equity issues remain unresolved, safety concerns may be more easily answered. “If the athlete can follow instructions, is strong enough to push a wheelchair, and has adequate motor skills to stay in their lane, it’s not something to be afraid of,” Hansen says. “And you’re going to be able to give this kid an incredible experience.”

The OSAA has established specific protocols for its members to follow when integrating wheelchair track athletes. For example, in 100-meter races, OSAA guidelines place wheelchair competitors in the outermost lanes, typically lanes 1 and 8, and they must stay in their own lane, just like able-bodied runners. In races exceeding 400 meters, wheelchair athletes use a staggered start and must stay outside of lane 3 for the entire race.

There’s also the issue of equipment, since most wheelchair racers use specially designed racing chairs that can cost $1,000 or more. “We’ve corralled a whole bunch of used equipment and we run an equipment loan program for any kid in Oregon who wants to compete on their high school track team,” Hansen says. “There are also wheelchair sport organizations in almost every state and often times they can supply equipment. If worse comes to worst, call me, and I will help find equipment.”

Hansen says coaches need to consider transportation as well. “It’s very important to get the kids on the bus because it will broaden everyone’s understanding. Also, part of the experience is singing the goofy songs and talking about who’s taking who to the prom,” he says. “If there aren’t wheelchair-accessible buses, we have gotten two of the weight-throw guys to help lift the wheelchair athlete onto the bus.”

For coaches wondering if the up-front work is worth the rewards, Jaquiss says, “It’s been my experience that once someone takes steps to include a person with a disability, they see great benefits, both for the athlete who now competes and for able-bodied athletes who now have a new teammate with a different perspective on life.”

To receive a handbook on working with wheelchair athletes, contact Kevin Hansen at: wwscoach@efn.org or (541) 485-1860.

The USA Track & Field rule book includes a section on adaptations for athletes with disabilities that can be downloaded from the USATF Web site at: www.usatf.org/about/rules/2006/.