All credit for this story belongs to The Arizona Republic. To read the story on their website: Quadriplegic photographer Loren Worthington in Rio to shoot Paralympics
Kerry Lengel, The Republic | azcentral.com
11:28 a.m. MST September 9, 2016
Loren Worthington, who has been a quadriplegic for 25 years is a professional Phoenix photographer who covers disabled athletes. He will cover the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. David Wallace/azcentral.com
Loren Worthington bought his first camera on eBay about 15 years ago. It was a digital point-and-shoot, designed to be simple for anyone to use.
Well, not just anyone. Worthington is quadriplegic. He uses a wheelchair, and although he can move his arms, he has limited function in his hands. Especially his right, the side where the shutter button is. So he attached a remote-control fob to the left side of the camera with Velcro and attached a mirror to redirect the infrared beam to the correct spot.
“By the time I was done re-engineering it to make it work, there were wires coming out of the top of it and I had taken the battery and taped it to the side, all because I needed a way to make it function with my hand ability,” the 52-year-old Phoenix resident says. “If I dropped it, it all fell apart. It was like Lincoln Logs. But it worked.”
Photography became a passion, and he combined it with another, his love of sports — specifically, adaptive sports, the kind played by people with disabilities like his own. Worthington shoots photos as part of his job as communications and marketing manager for Ability360, a Phoenix non-profit that provides training facilities for adaptive athletes.
And this week he is in Rio de Janeiro shooting some of the world’s top competitors as an official photographer for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
“I know how hard these guys train,” he says. “It’s so easy to get up and run and compete when you have your full body. But to be able to do it and be paralyzed or missing a leg or whatever, you just realize how much harder it is even to get out of bed, and how hard they work at it. So I’m driven to take the best photo of them doing that.”
A fateful slide into third
Sports, especially baseball, were a huge part of Worthington’s life growing up. A self-described Army brat, he was born in Fairbanks, Ala., and his family moved to Phoenix in the early 1970s. He graduated from Horizon High School without any real plans for college or a career. He just wanted to keep playing ball, even if he knew he wasn’t good enough to go pro.
“I was working in construction by day and playing as much baseball and softball as I could at night,” he says. “I was into hunting, camping, fishing. Not too focused, but definitely knew how to go out with my buds and have a good time. And I was still hanging out with a lot of my buds who were playing college ball.”
The accident that would change his life happened at a pickup game in 1985. He was 21.
“I hit a great double, should have stayed at second, thought it looked like a potential triple, slid into third, and my head impacted the knee of the pitcher who was coming in to make the play,” Worthington recalls.
“And: No pain. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I couldn’t get up. I thought it knocked the wind out of me, and then I thought maybe the pitcher was sitting on my back, because I couldn’t lift myself up. That’s about all I remember. And then there was a helicopter flight to the hospital.”
Worthington sustained what’s called a C5-6 cervical break, damaging his spinal cord below the neck. He would never walk again.
He speaks matter-of-factly of the difficult months that followed, but he says he had a hard time facing his longtime friends. They were all supportive, but the things that had brought them together, especially the love of baseball, now created a chasm. So it was a relief when he transferred to the Craig Hospital in Denver for three months of intensive rehabilitation.
It was there that he first climbed into a racing wheelchair — not to compete, but just to get back in shape. He had lost 40 pounds, mostly muscle, after the accident.
Back in business
Back in Phoenix, he went about building a new life. He enrolled at Arizona State University to earn an economics degree and worked with some friends doing computer-assisted architectural design for home remodels. Later he went into business with his father, a civil engineer who developed technology for detecting corrosion in water pipelines.
They sold the business in the late ’90s, and with a chunk of change in the bank, Worthington decided he wanted to travel the world.
“I literally got as far as Rocky Point, Mexico,” he says.
He met some people who were doing resort bookings using antiquated technology — a spiral notebook and pen. So he offered to set them up with a computerized booking system and ended up back in business, this time in the tourism industry.
“Loren is an entrepreneurial-minded guy. It’s the way his mind works,” says Worthington’s boss at Ability360, executive director Phil Pangrazio.
It was in Baja California that Worthington took up photography, after he became unsatisfied with the quality of the freelance work he was using.
“I immediately realized that I needed a better camera, and of course that’s worse than a crack addition, is photography equipment,” he says. “At that point I knew I wanted to stop working in Mexico. I wanted to be a photographer.”
A calendar for a cause
Now a successful businessman, in the late 2000s Worthington joined the board of directors at Ability360, which was then called Arizona Bridge to Independent Living. It’s a $40 million non-profit that serves the disabled community, and it was in the process of building a new sports and fitness center for everyone from 6-year-olds to world-class Paralympic athletes.
Worthington had the idea of promoting the fitness center with a calendar celebrating adaptive sports. And he would take the pictures, of course. He brought in a sample for Pangrazio to look at.
“It was a guy named Josh who was about my level of disability and he plays rugby,” he says. “But Josh is almost a freak of nature, if you will, because his muscles are so ripped, so unbelievably pronounced. And we lit him with three lights that made him look just extremely rugged, and it was a really good photo. When we showed it to Phil, basically he just wanted to know when could we get the rest of them done.”
“He had a vision to improve our media presence with the website and social media, everything we push out visually for the public,” Pangrazio says. “That whole idea of projecting very powerful and positive images of disability, a lot of that came out in his calendar.”
Reaching the pinnacle
Worthington continues to document athletes in training and competition for Ability360 but also works as a freelance photographer. Last year, he shot the Parapan American Games in Toronto for Phoenix-based Sports ’N Spokes magazine, which covers adaptive sports. And while he was there, he picked up some work with the U.S. Paralympic Committee.
“I just busted my butt,” he says. “I had my photos done and ready to go to the editors faster than anybody else, because I knew that was my ticket to get to go work in Rio, which was my goal all along. I wanted to be a sports photographer, and I wanted to shoot adaptive sports, and that’s the pinnacle.”
It worked, and now Worthington is hard at work in Brazil.
He says he has never met another disabled photographer covering adaptive athletes. And that fuels him.
“Because I sit in a wheelchair and I know what it’s like, I really feel like I know how to get a shot that’s slightly different,” he says.
“Sometimes you see a photo, it’s stock photography of somebody sitting in a wheelchair, and you probably don’t even notice whether that person really lives in a wheelchair. But we know right away that’s a model, that’s somebody who got paid to do it. And the same is true when we see athletes competing. We know, yeah, that’s a good photo because that’s how hard it is. So that’s what drives me.”
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