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Columbia Missourian

Missouri association provides athletic opportunities for adults, children with disabilities

By BLYTHE BERNHARD/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. PETERS — After an hour and a half of running drills, practicing spin kicks and playing a scrimmage, the real fun for the Flames soccer team started when a game of dodgeball broke out at the end of Saturday's practice.

Parents rolled oversize soccer balls at the players, who deftly maneuvered their motorized wheelchairs to avoid getting tagged in the gym at Wedgwood Elementary in Florissant.

"I'm the fastest player," said Laura Cross, who drives a hot pink chair she named Sassy. "I always get through tight spots."

Laura and her teammates play power soccer in the Disabled Athlete Sports Association, based in St. Peters. The group offers children and adults with physical or visual disabilities the opportunity to play and compete in several sports and activities. Participants are not cognitively impaired, and many have qualified for the Paralympics and national tournaments.

The program's volunteer coaches are typically occupational or physical therapists. Sports offered include swimming, track, fencing, tennis, soccer, golf, archery and sled hockey. Martial arts, snow skiing and rock climbing programs are also available.

"When you have a physical impairment, it doesn't get you out of still doing as much as you can," said Josh Pennington, programs director. "The sports are just as competitive and you train just as hard."

Pennington has a spinal cord injury and first became interested in adaptive sports by playing wheelchair rugby. Playing sports with a disability not only builds confidence, but helps with strength, muscle tone, balance and coordination, he said.

"I learned more in three days of playing adaptive sports than in months of clinical rehab," Pennington said.

Each sport has adaptations for players with all kinds of disabilities, from paralysis to muscular disorders and amputated limbs. Hockey is played sitting down on sleds with ice picks to maneuver. Power soccer players attach a guard to the front of their wheelchairs to allow them to kick and dribble the 13-inch ball. Some archery competitors use their teeth to draw their bows. Pennington and other staff members have high expectations for the athletes, who are never coddled.

"You coach them the same, you push them the same," he said. "The same concept is still there — if you fall down you get up. We use those sports as a therapy tool to promote independence."

Noah Williams, 9, has a neurological muscular disorder that makes it hard to lift his head out of the water when swimming. His coaches taught him to roll onto his back when he needs to take a breath. Before taking part in the sports association activities, Noah was disappointed when he made little progress in private swimming lessons.

"He's cognitively on track and very bright, and its frustrating when he can't do things that he wants to do," said his mom, Christine Williams of Kirkwood. Now "he's really excited and he wants to keep going."

Cydnee Williams, 7, of O'Fallon, Mo., loves her weekly swimming classes, where she experiences freedom in the water "because she's able to move around unlike she's able to do otherwise," mom Carol Williams said.

"She's a very independent little girl, and she likes it when she can do things on her own," Carol Williams said. "Swimming is her thing. This is her one thing that she can do that is only hers."

The sessions cost about $30 for eight weeks of practices and games. Grants and fundraising support the organization.

Parents of athletes said they appreciate the opportunity to watch their children play for a team. Many, like Andrew Tollefson of St. Charles, have watched their siblings play sports and wanted a turn.

"Here's this little guy who can't move on his own and loves, loves, loves sports," said his mom, Ann Tollefson. With the Disabled Athlete Sports Association, "he can also have a sport, and he can participate."

Andrew, 11, wears a large red number 5 on the back of his wheelchair in honor of Albert Pujols. Playing power soccer has helped with his driving skills and confidence, allowing him to navigate the chaotic hallways of middle school and participate in physical education class, Ann Tollefson said.

"I'm amazed at the amount of things he can do."