In Pursuit of Excellence
Shoulder-wrenching training and a will of iron are sometimes the only things that keep these wheels turningテつ*
Sharie Epp
Times Colonist (Victoria)

Saturday, May 18, 2002

An Amiable Medley of people meet every Tuesday and Thursday on the track at UVic.

Some are young, some are older, they are male and female, but their differences tend to be overshadowed by the constant image of their wheelchairs. None of them chose to be in the chairs. What they chose to be were athletes.

Competing in the International Paralympic Committee Canadian Trials this weekend at UVic, and wearing the Maple Leaf at the IPC Worlds, July 20-28 in France, is their goal.

Al Bergman was already an athlete before he fell 20 metres off a cliff and crushed his lower back. The 28-year-old from Cowichan Bay was a competitive road racing cyclist who worked as a forest firefighter on a rappelling crew. Based near McBride, he was out for a jog to stay in shape, and has no memory of how he ended up at the bottom of that cliff two years ago, waiting seven hours before someone found him.

He does remember the day Brad Hartley, a fellow firefighter who was also injured and paralysed, came to visit him in the hospital. Hartley was Bergman's introduction to wheelchair racing.

"I thought, 'I have to change sports now,' " recalled Bergman. "It's just like bike racing for me. It filled that void."

Bergman, a gold medallist at the Canada Games last year, was the fourth-place Canadian at the Boston Marathon, and most recently won the wheelchair division at the Times Colonist 10K. He thought about giving it up. After all, it wasn't that long ago he couldn't even get the chair to go in a straight line. But he kept at it.

For Karen March of Mill Bay, it took a year just to figure out how to manoeuvre her way into the snug-fitting racing chair, designed to keep its occupant wedged in place if it flips.

March, 34, is ranked fifth in the world in the 200-metre, and is the top woman in B.C. in the T52 category for athletes with significant impairment to all four limbs. Comparably, Bergman and Hartley are at the fast end of the four wheelchair categories at T54, the open class for people who have fully functional muscles through the trunk, shoulders, arms and hands. T53 is in-between, and T51 is for those with a high level of disability in all four limbs.

For March, whose partner, Peter Lawless, is the group's coach, it's important for people to understand the categories, and acknowledge the individual achievement.

"It's nice to get recognized in the proper class. It's even more motivating," said March. Like the others, she is perfectly happy to have able-bodied racers come out in the T54 division. Their sport is not about wheelchair athletes, it's about athletes in wheelchairs.

"It's great when you kick an able-bodied ass," Hartley said. "We get to show them what our world is all about."

The obstacles, however, are somewhat greater for those who don't have a choice. As Kevin Gaidies noted, it's not like hopping on a $200 bike from Sears and hitting the road. An entry-level chair costs $3,000. Custom jobs are up to $8,000, and can take a long time coming -- 20-year-old engineering student Gene Way has been waiting for his since last fall. To start with, most people, like 12-year-old Nicky Lapointe, use the lending service offered by B.C. Wheelchair Sports for the first year.

Once in the chair, mastering the racing technique is shoulder wrenching. It involves wearing heavily padded gloves, making a fist, and using a punching, downward piston-like action on the front of push rings built on the wheels to move the chair. Strength, body position, hand speed, and how well the equipment measures up to things like arm length are just a few of the variables affecting speed.

"It's a highly technical sport," said Gaidies, who moved from Australia to Canada looking for a coach and training partners. At one point in Australia, he was being coached by Lawless over the Internet.

"He always told me he did my workouts (sent by e-mail) really well," joked Lawless. "I told him he looked fine."

Lawless has watched and learned and studied to become a provincial coach, and he has a huge belief in the ability of his group, despite their short history, to make their mark on the racing world. Just three years ago, then 15-year-old Stefanie Barber decided she wanted to race, and all by herself, she pushed around and around the track. March joined her, and gradually, as Lawless said, it seemed to snowball. The athletes' commitment to themselves, and each other, keeps them coming.

"Some days I think, 'I've been through enough. I fell off a cliff and broke my back, maybe I'll just sit in the La-Z-Boy,' " said Bergman. "(Then) I see people dealing with a similar situation to me, and they are not taking it easy."

March, in the 100m and 200m, Barber (400m), Bergman (100m) and Hartley (400m) have all made the qualifying standard for the trials. Competitors from cerebral palsy sports, blind sports and amputee sports are also vying for some of the 52 spots on the national team.

The event at Centennial Stadium is the first time all four associations have been represented at the same meet, and the first time a wheelchair championship has been held outside of Quebec or Ontario. No one could recall anyone, except Vancouver's Kelly Smith, ever making the Canadian team from any other province.

Still bantering about what they plan to call themselves, Team PUSH (push using strength and heart) or VIP (Vancouver Island pushers), the little Victoria group has plans to put the screws to the Eastern domination. Their racing chairs are just a tool. Their determination would be exactly the same in track shoes.

"People are people," Lawless said. "Some are short. Some are tall. Some have wheels. Some don't."