Nebraska high school athletes in wheelchairs push for a chance to compete in postseason

Nebraska high school athletes in wheelchairs push for a chance to compete in postseason
World-Herald News Service

Gavin Myers was rounding the corner, starting the second of four laps of a 1,600-meter race, when his right arm began to hurt. Behind him, competitors were gaining ground.

By this point, Gavin was already well behind the lead pack, and soon, he’d be more than a lap down. Neither that nor the burning in his arm — pain he’d soon learn to be the result of a muscle strain — would prevent the 17-year-old from pushing on.

Despite his injury, despite watching every other racer finish ahead of him — and especially despite the fact that he was the only one competing in a wheelchair — Gavin completed each grueling meter. He crossed the finish line with his face twisted in pain.

The injury was only part of a disappointing finish for Gavin, who was representing Sutherland High School in the South Platte Valley Association meet at Hershey High School.

Coming in at 7 minutes, 33 seconds, Gavin finished well behind his personal best of 6:45, set earlier this season. Worse yet, it would be the final time Gavin would take the track this season.

Gavin’s teammates and runners, jumpers and throwers from all over Nebraska participated in district meets last week. Those with district performances good enough to qualify will compete at the state meet on Friday and Saturday at Omaha’s Burke High School.

Gavin won’t.

The Nebraska School Activities Association has no program in place at the district or state level for the few high school track and field athletes who compete using wheelchairs. Though Gavin has competed in the mile in the regular season throughout high school, he has not been allowed to race in districts, and there are no wheelchair events at the state meet.

That is unfair, said Gavin, who was born with spina bifida. “I’m able to compete in every other meet.”

The absence of a wheelchair program at state has received extra attention this year. Eva Houston, a 16-year-old at Westside High School who has cerebral palsy, is just starting her track career.

Now, with at least two racers willing to compete, some families and coaches are pressuring Nebraska to catch up to other states, like Iowa, which has had a state wheelchair track division since 1990.

The NSAA says making that kind of change is not so simple. By the time the issue was brought to their attention at the start of this season, administrators said, it was too late to add wheelchair events to the state meet.

Officials are optimistic, however, that there will be some kind of postseason wheelchair event in place by next season.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface as to what this could be,” said Nate Neuhaus, assistant director at the NSAA responsible for track and field. “We don’t just want to jump into it without having all the information and all the necessary protocols in place.”

But for the athletes, the clock is ticking. Eva will be a junior next year. Gavin, a senior.

“My fear is they’re going to keep pushing this and be like, ‘OK, we’ll just do it next year,’ and then I’ll be gone,” Eva said.

In light of legislation aimed at inclusivity, the question on some parents’ minds, including Eva’s father, Kevin Houston, is why the state doesn’t already have a plan in place.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a directive advising schools to provide athletic opportunities to students with disabilities.

That year, Rhonda Blanford-Green, former executive director of the NSAA, told The World-Herald that the state was looking to incorporate two Paralympic races into the state track and field meet.

About two years later, Gavin Myers started high school in Sutherland. He had competed in the 1,600 in middle school, said his mom, Delta Myers. But high school is more competitive, and the family wanted to be sure it was OK for Gavin to race.

Sutherland school administrators called the NSAA, who said Gavin could compete in the regular season as long as schools hosting meets didn’t object. But competing in districts and state was a no-go, the athletic association said, citing safety concerns for other athletes.

Neuhaus said he could not comment on why the association didn’t move forward with plans for a state wheelchair track program in 2013 or after Sutherland reached out about Gavin. He said he was unaware of those conversations.

He personally first heard of the issue this year when Eva’s father called at the beginning of the season.

“It’s not easy to do things of this nature. It does take time,” Neuhaus said. “There are legal issues, there are things we need in place to consider for qualification processes.”

There are questions to work out, he said: Can students in any type of wheelchair participate, or do they need a special racing chair? What are the rules for clocking times? Can these athletes score points for their teams, or would they compete in exhibition races?

So far, the NSAA hasn’t determined what events they might include for wheelchair athletes.

“There’s more to this than just saying yes or no. You want to do it right. You want to do it in a way that gives it the necessary attention that it deserves,” he said.

To do so, Neuhaus said he’s reached out to other states with wheelchair programs already in place.

According to U.S. Paralympics, 24 states — including Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota — have adopted inclusion rules that allow track and field athletes with disabilities to compete and score points at regional and state meets.

Iowa was one of the earliest adopters, said Bev Vaughn, executive director of the American Association of Adaptive Sports Programs.

The Hawkeye State began a wheelchair program for its state high school track meet in 1990, after a family from West Des Moines raised the issue, said Jared Chizek, assistant director for track and field of the Iowa High School Athletic Association.

Iowa currently offers four events in a wheelchair division: the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter and shot put.

There are seven athletes competing in those events this spring, Chizek said. And there have been competitors in the wheelchair division every year since Chizek started with the association almost 10 years ago. One year, there were as many as nine competitors.

The cost, he said, is negligible: It amounts to whatever the association has to spend on extra awards.

“It’s been a great success,” Chizek said. “In Iowa, we feel blessed to have a strong track and field community out there, and our wheelchair athletes have been accepted as members of that community.”

Missouri hosted its first wheelchair state track events last year. South Dakota hosted a state wheelchair event about five or six years ago, after a student reached out, but hasn’t seen any interest since, a state athletic official said.

A perceived lack of interest from students using wheelchairs may be one reason why some state high school athletic associations haven’t developed an adaptive program, Vaughn said.

Neuhaus said the Nebraska association still needs to determine how many students in wheelchairs would want to compete in state track and field events.

But Kevin Houston thinks that shouldn’t matter. Giving just one kid the chance to compete, he said, would be worth the trouble. Athletes like Eva, he said, train and sweat and bleed just like the rest of the team.

“Her work ethic is phenomenal,” said Jon Preister, Eva’s track coach at Westside. “I think (her teammates) view her as an athlete that’s competing right alongside them. They understand that she’s competing in a different way, but I think they see what she’s doing and really have a lot of respect for her.”

Earlier this month, Preister worked with the NSAA to allow Eva to compete in the district meet, held last week in Kearney. She could race, the association said, but none of her times could count toward the team’s total. They’re still unclear, Neuhaus said, about how the performances of athletes in wheelchairs compare to those of able-bodied runners.

That kind of thinking bothers Eva. Later this week, she will compete at the national level for a spot on U.S. Paralympic’s track and field junior national team. And yet, she feels like her home state sees racers like her and Gavin as less-than.

“I just want to be recognized as an athlete, because I am an athlete,” she said. “I think we have the opportunity now to make this happen.”

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