How disabled athletes pursue the sports they love
By Chris Van Leuven
As the blistering midsummer sun reflects off the black asphalt in a parking lot near the Littleton Middle School track, Craig DeMartino takes shelter in the shadow of a portable 25‑foot‑tall climbing wall. The granite‑gray wall with dangling ropes and green, black and purple climbing holds is rigged for participants with varying disabilities. DeMartino is manning the wall for Adaptive Adventures, an Englewood nonprofit. As its climbing manager, he transports the wall in a trailer to various locations each month.
“We bring the mountain to the people,” says Chris Wiegand, who is Adaptive Adventures’ paddle-sports and cycling manager. To keep active, he climbs, runs, kayaks and rides his bike. Over the years he has coached internationally, and in 2005, he earned both the Olympic Development Coach of the Year and National Double-Goal Coach titles. His friends know him as the “champion of energy spirit.”
Disabled athletes Matt Feeney and Joel Berman started Adaptive Adventures in 1999 out of the need to enjoy the sports they loved without having to jump through a bunch of hoops. They just wanted to get out with their friends. They brought in Wiegand as a consultant a few years later, and DeMartino joined in 2015.
Feeney became a paraplegic after a shallow-diving accident at Utah’s Lake Powell in 1988. In 1991 he quit his work in the financial sector and pursued adaptive ski racing and outdoor recreation. Berman was in a railroad accident in 1981 that claimed his left leg above the knee; he began adaptive recreation in 1984. Wiegand’s career as an athlete and coach spans 25 years, including distance running, adventure racing and triathlons. He sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2009 and later shifted his coaching focus to those with adaptive requirements. DeMartino, a climber of 30 years, sustained massive spine trauma and lost his right leg below the knee after falling 100 feet in 2002. He climbed 3,000‑foot El Capitan in Yosemite, Calif., in a single day, after his accident. Today, all but two members of Adaptive Adventures are adaptive athletes or veterans.
Overcoming Challenges, Celebrating Successes
Back at Littleton Middle School, a minivan pulls up. The side door slides open and Dillon, 11, wheels his way toward DeMartino in his motorized wheelchair. Dillon was born without legs and with only one arm, and is missing all but three fingers.
When the two first met, “Dillon’s mom pulled me to the side and said, ‘Is there any way that he can climb?’” DeMartino remembers. “I said, ‘If you trust me, I will get him up in the air and he’ll have a good time.’” Overhearing the conversation, Dillon pounces from his chair and crabwalks toward the climbing wall.
“I’m with these people who were told their whole life that they won’t be able to do things. Then they meet a guy like me who gives them permission,” DeMartino says. “I try not to lose track of that. It’s powerful. Perspective is a valuable thing to have. I get a dose of that on a regular basis.”
DeMartino explains how he showed Dillon how to use the proper equipment, and “soon he was 20 feet up. I climbed above him and saw this big smile on his face. When you think you’re having a bad day and you see this kid smiling, that situation gives you perspective fast.”
Adaptive Adventures, one of six similar nonprofits in the Front Range, offers year‑round outings for athletes with a wide range of disabilities, including PTSD, spinal-cord injuries, blindness and muscular dystrophy. The organization specializes in snow sports and paddle sports, rock and ice climbing.
“There is not a physical disability we can’t cover. Quadriplegia—we cover it all,” says Wiegand, who lives in Erie with his wife and two sons. “Adaptive sports are about overcoming the physical and emotional sides to trauma and disability. We then have to overcome the obstacle that is self‑perception.
“The dragon boat goes beyond racing,” he continues, referring to the human-powered craft that requires a team of rowers. “Dragon boats introduce people to a community; with 20 people in a boat, every person’s self-perception is blown apart. To move the boat you have to work in sync with 19 other paddlers, which makes [participants] part of something bigger than themselves. For the vets, it reminds them of being part of a unit again. It’s also about celebration, which is often the first thing to go away with disabilities.”
Not all outings are as immediately successful as Dillon’s. Nicky, who is blind, was timid when she met with DeMartino. Though she’d already been climbing for a year when she joined up with Adaptive Sports, she regressed and soon said she wanted to give up climbing forever.
Something was wrong, and DeMartino couldn’t tell what it was until she explained that she didn’t like her progress measured. That’s not why she took up the sport.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I’m not gonna come back.’ I never had someone say that to me,” DeMartino says. So he threw away the agenda and they moved to a different part of the gym, away from others for privacy, and focused on the simple beauty of moving over stone, not the challenge of it.
The lesson for DeMartino that day was that getting wrapped up with a quantifiable agenda doesn’t work for many participants. “Nicky showed me it was supposed to be fun. When we made it fun again, I found out what works.”
Reflecting on the outing, DeMartino recognizes that everyone struggles. Though on the outside his smile is big and confident, he’s plagued with constant pain. Some days—most days—he doesn’t want to be pushed, either.
Today, DeMartino, Weigand and their fellow instructors see their injuries as a gift that allows them to connect more closely with others and improve the quality of their lives.
“My injury allowed me to help others in a way that I could never have. It gave me entry into this world that I never knew existed,” DeMartino says. “It allows me to help people and give back to the sport that I love and filled my whole life with. It was a selfish pursuit, and now I use it to give back to someone.”
Chris Van Leuven lives in Jamestown with his boxer pup, Fenster. His work appears in Best American Sports Writing 2016.