Having never been able to walk, 17-year-old Kelsey Haase matter-of-factly is explaining how she uses a special chair and remarkable upper-body strength and coordination to launch a shot put in competitions. The Schaumburg teen is just at the point where a listener is thinking, "How in the world does she do that?" when Kelsey is interrupted by a hug from fellow teen athlete Jonathan Heider, who just swam a magnificent race even though he was born with tiny stubs for arms and legs, a feat that causes Kelsey to marvel, "How in the world does he do that?"
You can't turn around at this National Junior Disability Championship in Lake Forest without bumping into some amazing athlete who inspires.
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"I don't really like the word 'inspire,'" says the gregarious Heider, who just won medals in a competition in Greece and is moving to the Olympic training site in Colorado to train for the 2012 Paralympic Games. "I hear it too much. I understand I am a role model, but you're just used to the body you have, and you use what you've got."
When Kelsey became old enough to realize that spina bifida kept her legs from working like those of most kids, she asked, "Why me?"
"Since she started sports, she's never asked," says her mom, Michell Haase, one of the 800 volunteers manning these national games that are a precursor to the Paralympics. "I used to do triathlons, and she's my inspiration."
Having already won regional competitions, the 326 athletes and coaches from 44 states as well as Bermuda and Canada will be competing in suburban locations through Saturday in a variety of sports from swimming and track to table tennis and weightlifting. (For the schedule and more details, visit www.njdc2010.org.)
While the Olympic ideals of friendship and being good sports are important, these games bring out the competitive best in the athletes.
"I cut 20 seconds off my time," says Mary Griffith, 17, a senior at Mundelein High School, after finishing her 100-meter freestyle swim. Cerebral palsy requires her to rely almost exclusively on her arms to pull her through the water.
All the athletes here compete in categories based on their ages and abilities.
Visually impaired Samantha Smolka, 15, who will be a sophomore at Addison Trail High School, swims, does gymnastics, plays baseball and other games with a beeping ball, and runs sprints in track meets. But if the pool is dark, "I will run into anything and everything," she says. Watching other athletes with more severe disabilities or missing limbs is "so cool to see," she says.
"I just swim," says Daniel Suero, a 13-year-old Hoffman Estates boy who holds national records in competitions for people with disabilities but also is the only swimmer with disabilities on a competitive swim team in Palatine.
Daniel was 5 when he lost the ability to walk on his own, say his parents, Octavio and Helen Suero.
"He went from the soccer field to the operating table," says his mother, explaining how surgery to remove a tumor affected his legs. While his father says Daniel hopes to make the Paralympic team one day, "his first hope is to walk without crutches," his mom says.
Warming up for an international swim competition in Toronto this December, 15-year-old Alyssa Gialamas of Naperville wins one of her Monday races even though she has been swimming competitively for only a year.
"We're all athletes. We all train and work hard," says Alyssa, who was born with arthrogryposis that weakened her legs. "I just like swimming and like competing and showing other people my skills. I realize I'm inspiring, but when people say, 'You're an inspiration,' I have no idea what to say back."
Other local athletes competing in the nationals are Dion Carr, 18, of Bolingbrook; Evelyn Felipez, 12, of Lake Villa; Juan Rodarte, 8, of Island Lake; and Annie Schlesinger, 12, of Naperville. All are members of Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (www.glasa.org), which sends 37 athletes to these games. With 250 GLASA members playing nearly four dozen sports, not all of them have Paralympic dreams. But letting people see that people with disabilities can be world-class athletes is part of the mission.
You really can't worry about what other people think, says Kelsey, who does everything from snow skiing to basketball but is best known for weightlifting. She says these games are a chance to meet other athletes, make friends, do your best and even try new sports. She'll throw the javelin this week for only the second time in her life, and her inspiration to do that is grounded in a simple, universal desire that knows no bounds.
"I like it," Kelsey says with a grin, "because I get to throw a spear."
Use: Competition continues in suburbs through Saturday