Water sports clinic lets people with disabilities know fun on the water
By LISA GUTIERREZ
The Kansas City Star

Kris Cole wore a tentative smile on her face when she arrived at Smithville Lake on the hottest day of summer.

The fun had already started, and she was a little late to the party.

Out on the water, a pontoon boat named Sweetwater floated leisurely, its passengers enjoying a cooling breeze. Personal watercraft bumped along with two, sometimes three, riders snuggled up on them. Two powerboats zipped up and down, pulling skiers behind them.

Parked on the dock, a row of wheelchairs waited for the water lovers to return.

Cole came in a wheelchair, too.

"I love water," the 40-year-old mom said. "I absolutely loved water before."

She meant before the last day of January when her Ford F150 hit a patch of black ice near her hometown of Bolckow, Mo., north of St. Joseph. That morning, unlike every other morning, she didn't buckle her seat belt.

The truck rolled over and threw her, and her spine cracked in several places. Now she visits the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City three times a week, learning how to live from a wheelchair.

The institute invited its clients and anyone else who wanted to come to its annual Day at the Lake last week, a water sports clinic for people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.

Cole brought along her boyfriend, Steve Sticken, and his sister, Robin Kelly, so they could watch and learn how to maneuver her body safely in and out of a powerboat.

But Cole wasn't ready to try. Sticken assured her he could pick her up and sling her over his shoulder if need be, but Cole wasn't as confident.

"She's afraid I'll hurt my back," he said. "She says, `If you hurt yourself, where am I?' "

Suddenly Cole's biggest challenge became simply getting out of her chair.

Yet others did.

Volunteers in bathing suits, shorts and sunscreen lifted participants out of wheelchairs and into the water and showed them how to use equipment that allowed their bodies, for fleeting, precious seconds, to move.

This was a day, in the guise of a picnic with hamburgers and pop, about conquering fear, about "helping people see themselves in a new and different reality," said Mary Jo Middleton, a St. Joseph physician and volunteer for the day.

One man with almost no sight water-skied for the first time. Another man, a quadriplegic, rode on a personal watercraft and wanted to do it again and again and again.

After his wild ride, Jake O'Connor of Bonner Springs wouldn't leave the shallow water off the boat ramp, chatting up some of the female volunteers in bikinis.

Buff and tan with frat-boy good looks, the 25-year-old O'Connor used to climb rocks, ride mountain bikes and tone his body in adventurous ways. Two years ago, a wall fell on him while he was working at a construction site in Colorado, where he's from. He knew instantly it was bad. "Jake, you did it this time," he told himself. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.

O'Connor found out about the lake gathering from a guy he met through www.adaptiveadventures.org, a Web site of sports and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. "He told me to get my butt out here," he said.

He was glad he did, for he hadn't met anyone else in a wheelchair since moving to Kansas City recently to take a desk job for a construction company.

He'd never water-skied before, either, but he was willing. The question, though: Was his body able?

He left his ball cap on the seat of his wheelchair as a friend and a volunteer slid him into the water, cradling him until he started to float. He wasn't scared.

Volunteers slipped him onto a Kan Ski, a wide water ski equipped with a rubber sling on top called a "cage." Skiers sit harnessed in the cage, legs extended in front of them. As the tow rope tightens, the skier is pulled forward slightly for the ride.

Hold on to the rope, and keep your arms straight out by your ankles, volunteers told O'Connor.

Brian Mitchell, the boat driver, called out, "What's his name?"

Jake told him.

"Jake, I'm Brian. Nice to meet you," Mitchell shouted back. "When you're ready, yell."

"Ready!"

The tow rope tightened quickly as the boat shot away from the dock. On the ski behind, O'Connor's upper body shot to the left, right, left, in the boat's wake. But he didn't spill.

"Hey, by golly, he got it on the first try! That's amazing," marveled a volunteer on the boat ramp.

Because her injury was less than a year old, Cole couldn't participate in any of the physical fun. Those were the lake-day rules. That seemed OK to Cole, content with watching and staying in her wheelchair for an easy ride on the pontoon.

As Sticken pushed her out on the dock, a grin spread across Cole's face. Safety first. Like all riders, she had to buckle on a life jacket before Sticken wheeled her, in the chair, onto the boat.

After the ride, she and her friends lingered long over lunch. As the afternoon slipped away, they decided to return to the dock one last time.

When a speedboat pulled up next to the dock, someone asked her if she wanted a ride.

If she did, she'd have to let someone lift her out of the chair.

Sticken surveyed the boat and how far away it was from the dock. "It don't look too bad to me," he said.

"You got feet," Cole told him.

"You have feet, too," Sticken's sister countered.

"I don't have feet that work," Cole said.

Nervously Cole looked around and asked a volunteer whether more people would be coming to help -- more people who'd done this before, she implied.

Soon a handful of men joined them. A volunteer came up with the idea of laying a life jacket over the edge of the boat to create a cushioned spot where Cole could sit so someone could swing her legs into the boat.

The transfer went easily. Up. Out of the chair. Into the boat. Within minutes, Cole was on her way.

Usually it's easier for people who are injured later in life to overcome the fear of new challenges like the ones they found at the lake, said Middleton, who works with rehabilitation patients.

People born without mobility or sight, who have never known what it's like to walk or swim or, heaven forbid, water-ski, sometimes view the possible as impossible.

Imagine skiing, boat skipper Mitchell said, when you can't see the boat, the water, the sky or the land around you.

Before guiding a handful of blind participants out on the water, he painted verbal pictures for them. He told them the boat was 19 feet long and 7 feet wide, "so if they fall they understand where they are in relation to the boat."

He explained they would be hanging onto a boom that extended perpendicular to the boat. He said he'd be driving anywhere from 18 to 25 mph.

And they skied.

"You'll see," said physical therapist Randy Leighton, a volunteer for the day, "that by the time they get done, you can't wipe the smiles off their faces."

Thirty-five-year-old John Taylor of Kansas City really wanted to water-ski.

But unlike the younger O'Connor, he couldn't pass the first test: Turn your body over in the water in case you fall face-down. No one skied without four people on two personal watercraft following. But for safety's sake, no one who couldn't help themselves in this way could go out.

Taylor had never been in the water, before or after the injury that turned him into a quadriplegic.

A cluster of volunteers spent 15 minutes trying first to find a life jacket that fit him, then unsuccessfully trying to help him turn his 200-pound frame around in the water. "Naw, I ain't gonna stay up," he told them dejectedly.

But they didn't give up.

It took eight people and 10 more minutes to figure out how to safely lift Taylor out of his chair and lower him onto the back of a personal watercraft parked beside the dock. Taylor's legs twitched uncontrollably from nervousness as the able-bodied volunteers tried to figure out their own challenge.

"Danny, you and I can pick him up and set him straight up."

"Why don't we lift him straight up so she can pull the chair straight out?"

"I got the chair."

Finally, they got him settled. Sandwiched between the driver and another rider on the back, Taylor rode off, smiling, onto the big lake. He kept urging the driver to go faster, faster, faster. Thirty-five miles an hour was way too slow. Sissy speed.

"This is something everybody should come to do," Taylor enthused after his ride. "This is something that would really blow their mind."

Twelve years ago an acquaintance shot him in the neck, and John Taylor hasn't walked since.

But on this day, he flew.

"I could see the clouds and the water around me," he said, "and it's like I was on top of the world. It feels like I was almost immortal."


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To reach Lisa Gutierrez, features reporter, call (816) 234-4987, or send e-mail to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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