All credit for this story belongs to The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. To view this story on their website: Sports for every body grows in popularity in Phoenix
By Andrea Galyean, Special for The Republic — Posted Oct 15, 2016
Stephen Hernandez remembers a kickball game from first grade, when he kicked the ball so hard that it flew high into the air … followed by his prosthetic leg. He and his friends laughed as the leg flipped over and over.
Hernandez, now 15, was born with the blood vessels in his feet so tangled that they couldn’t work properly. When he was two, both feet were amputated to the ankle joints. But with prostheses fitted over his lower legs, Hernandez can walk, run, hike, climb stairs and play sports.
He loves sports. The Phoenix teen is particularly fond of basketball, but as he got older and more serious about the game, Hernandez started to become frustrated that his prosthetics, which weigh almost 10 pounds apiece, were slowing him down.
“I wanted to keep playing, but it was a challenge because of my prosthetics,” Hernandez said.
Then, two years ago, Hernandez discovered a world he’d never even imagined: adaptive sports.
Sports for every body
The concept of athletic activities designed for people with physical disabilities has been around for decades, but increased awareness and technology have greatly expanded their range and popularity to include activities as diverse as power soccer, hand-cycling and adaptive golf. The 2016 Paralympics, which took place last month in Brazil, included more than 4,000 athletes competing in 23 different sports.
In the Phoenix area, two major organizers of adaptive sports are Arizona Disabled Sports (AZDS) in Mesa and Ability360 in Phoenix. Both offer a variety of activities for children and adults, including individual and team sports and competitions.
One of those competitions, the fourth annual Duel in the Desert, is coming up next week at Ability360 on Oct. 21 and 22. The event, which is free to attend, attracts teams from across the country to compete in wheelchair basketball, stand-up amputee basketball, power soccer, wheelchair rugby, and wheelchair lacrosse.
Duel in the Desert What: Competitive tournaments in wheelchair basketball, stand-up amputee basketball, power soccer, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair lacrosse. When: Noon-8 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22. Where:Ability360 Fitness Center, 5031 E. Washington St., Phoenix. Cost:Free to spectators.
Finding his sport
It was a flyer for the 2014 Duel in the Desert that caught Hernandez’s eye at his prosthetist’s office. Intrigued by the idea of stand-up amputee basketball, Hernandez came as a spectator and left as a player.
He felt much more at home among other players with prostheses. But, as one of the only double-amputees on the team, he still struggled to keep up, so a coach suggested wheelchair basketball, which accepts anyone who has a disability involving their legs, even if they don’t use a wheelchair in daily life. Hernandez was skeptical, but gave it a try.
His first practices were tough — and humbling.
“I thought it was going to be so easy,” Hernandez confessed. “When I watched a game, they looked like they were flying! I had no idea how much work it took.”
He didn’t know how to maneuver the chair, how to block or how to tell which teammates could catch a high pass and which had more limited arm movements. The worst part, though, was the blisters. The other players used wheelchairs every day and had long since developed protective callouses, unlike Hernandez, who finished every practice in pain.
But he stuck it out.
He now practices four days a week and plays with the junior and adult Phoenix Banner Wheelchair Suns teams. The sport has boosted his confidence, taken him to tournaments around Arizona and California, and given him hopes of a college scholarship.
Still, Hernandez said, the biggest draw is on the court. “I like learning techniques and strategizing, and being in the game. But the best part is my teammates. When we’re all together and cheering each other on, it’s the best feeling.”
Spreading the word
One of the people cheering for Hernandez is Nick Pryor, who helps coach the adult wheelchair basketball team. Pryor, 27, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after a shotgun accident when he was four, grew up playing football, baseball, and — most important in his Indiana hometown: basketball.
Like Hernandez, Pryor never played against other kids with prostheses and had never heard of adaptive sports.
But when he moved to Arizona to attend graduate school at Arizona State University, Pryor discovered amputee basketball and adaptive sports through AZDS and Ability360 — and he realized he’d found his calling.
“The first thing I noticed about adaptive sports was that everybody wants the best out of everybody else,” Pryor said. “It’s competitive and everybody wants to win, but instead of trying to get in your head, they support you. I just fell in love.”
Pryor now works at Ability360, coaches wheelchair basketball, and is training for the next Paralympics, where he hopes to compete in javelin. He also serves as an ambassador for AZDS, promoting adaptive sports around the Valley, and he’s a member of AMP1, a traveling team of amputee basketball players from around the country who play demonstration games and give inspirational talks to children and adults with and without disabilities.
“The biggest thing I want to do is show kids that this exists so they don’t have to be like me and wait until they’re in their twenties to find out about it,” Pryor said. “Sports have taught me how to handle adversity, how to be persistent, and that good things come with hard work. I want them to be able to experience that.”
But Pryor also appreciates the role that adaptive sports play for people who become disabled later in life. “It’s different for me, because I grew up with it, but a lot of adults are starting as newbies and have to relearn everything. So this is a really welcoming place for that.”
Disabled doesn’t mean delicate
One athlete who came to adaptive sports as an adult was Clint Hoback, an Ahwatukee resident.
Hoback, 38, grew up able-bodied and active. He loved wrestling, playing football, and “making my mom nervous.” But when he was 19, his neck was broken when a drunk driver rear-ended his car, leaving him with no use of his legs and limited mobility in his hands. Hoback spent three months in rehab, depressed over his future athletic options, until a fellow quadriplegic urged him to try wheelchair rugby.
Wheelchair rugby has little in common with its namesake except for the fast pace and the aggressive hits that players inflict on each other. Also known as “murderball,” the sport is played on a basketball court and requires special wheelchairs designed to go fast and take punishment.
It feels, said Hoback, “like pure adrenaline.” To his mother’s dismay, he joined the team mere weeks after his Halo brace was removed.
Hoback now plays with the Phoenix Heat and, like his teammates, he gets knocked out of his chair at least once per game. Over the years he’s broken a thumb and an elbow, torn a rotator cuff, cracked “multiple ribs multiple times,” and even broken his back while playing. From his point of view, those are all arguments in favor of the sport.
“You see a guy straight out of rehab and he’s outfitted with all kinds of safety gear and the therapists are all trying to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, doesn’t have to struggle,” explained Hoback. “But life is struggle and life does hurt. I don’t know why you’d want to protect me from that. I’m not delicate.”
Hoback concedes that, now that he’s a “wily old veteran,” he doesn’t play with the same ferocity he did when he was 19. “But I still love it,” he said. “It’s a rush. I like the competition, but also the camaraderie. Winning or losing, if I’m playing, I’m having fun.”
5 places for adaptive sports in metro Phoenix
Team and individual sports including adult wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair lacrosse, power soccer and adaptive golf. Hosts monthly youth sports clinics and adaptive sports tournaments. Also operates a fully accessible fitness center with game courts, pools, weightlifting and workout equipment, indoor track and a climbing wall.
5031 E. Washington St., Phoenix
Arizona Disabled Sports (AZDS)
Team and individual sports including youth wheelchair basketball, power soccer, cycling, bowling and kayaking. Hosts competitions including International Paralympic Grand Prix track and field events at the annual Desert Challenge in May.
59 E. Broadway Road, Mesa
Miracle League of Arizona
Competitive and non-competitive baseball for children and adults with disabilities.
11130 E. Cholla St., Suite I-110, Scottsdale
Phoenix Coyotes Sled Hockey
Competitive team welcomes players with and without disabilities to play ice hockey on sleds.
Practices and games at the Ice Den, 9375 E Bell Road, Scottsdale
Many cities, including Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Surprise, offer adaptive sports and recreation opportunities. Check with your local Parks and Recreation department for details.