In His Element

Let me preface this blog entry by saying this: It is practically impossible to watch any child with a disability participate in physically challenged sports without being inspired. The sheer fact that they choose to play at all means they have a leg up on determination and perseverance, probably more than any of the world’s able-bodied athletes.

Of course, it’s not for everyone: Some kids play one round of wheelchair basketball, find a giant blister on their palm, and call it quits. And that’s fine—like I said, it’s not for everyone. But every once in a while we get a kid (or young adult) so determined and so willing to push his limits that they can’t help but stand out in our minds. As director of the Bennett Institute for Physically Challenged Sports at Kennedy Krieger, I’m fortunate to have met many such players. Like Jorge Medrano.

Jorge was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that involves incomplete formation of the spinal cord. As a result, he typically walks with braces. Don’t let them fool you though: This young man has skills.

Of course, when you think of so-called natural athletes, you probably imagine the Kobe Bryants and Derek Jeters of the world, not a kid who needs special equipment to walk. But perhaps it’s his very ability to rise above his disability and score that makes Jorge the quintessential natural athlete that he is. In fact—in addition to playing wheelchair basketball and sled hockey, Jorge has been an integral member of our softball team, so much so that he made the national all-star team, where he proved an outstanding first baseman. It seems that whether he’s catching a ball or shooting it, he’s in his element with a ball in his hands.

But, of course, the best stories of inspiration involve something more than natural ability—they require perseverance and a determination to rise above odds. And Jorge has that too.

From the moment he joined our sled hockey and wheelchair basketball teams, Jorge has demonstrated a work ethic that’s second to none. Even as the blisters form and his palms grow raw from propelling his chair, Jorge keeps pushing. That willingness to keep at it has proven incredibly important lately, as he tries to improve his game by improving his physical fitness.

No doubt he’ll do it—and he’ll do it without anyone dangling promises of athletic success and fame. This is the other thing that sets our kids apart from the able-bodied elite. For kids who play physically challenged sports, there are no multimillion dollar NBA hoop dreams full of Mercedes and mansions with private gyms and in-home movie theaters. There are no promises of stardom or their name on a jersey or their own shoe. Sure, a few fortunate ones might get a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball or train for marathons, but they’re the minority. And that’s not why they do it anyway.

These kids—kids like Jorge—do it because they want something more than the hand they were dealt. And that’s why I know Jorge is willing to keep trying and pushing to be a better athlete: He understands what it takes, and he knows what he wants. And to him—and so many other kids I meet like him—the end more than justifies the means.

Gerard Herman is director of the Bennett Institute for Physically Challenged Sports at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

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