Kelly Keefe isn't your average slalom competitor.
The 41-year-old is a quadriplegic who has used a wheelchair since 1983, when he was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving mishap.
But that hasn't stopped Mr. Keefe of South Toledo from belonging to a team of wheelchair athletes called the Raptors, which is hard at work practicing for the Ohio State Wheelchair Games in Columbus May 18 and 19.
The pressure is on.
The team, whose 25 members are from across greater Toledo, have finished first in the small team category - those composed of fewer than 30 members - in three of the last four years. It badly wants to finish on top again.
“It's not how you end up in a wheelchair that's important. It's what you do afterward that counts,” Mr. Keefe said.
His event is the slalom, in which he guides his electric wheelchair through a narrow, sinuous course, scoring points for speed and maneuverability. Braking, spinning, and turning sharply with the chair, without leaving the course, takes a lot of practice, he said.
Thirteen-year-old Raptor Steven Klorer, who was born with spina bifida, said the competition in Columbus means a lot to him. He's looking forward to participating in the track-and-field events.
“Wheelchair racing is what I like most,” he explained. He said he does most of his practice on roads near his home in Curtice.
Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the spinal cord does not develop completely. About half of those who have it use wheelchairs.
Quadriplegics and paraplegics want to lead lives that are as close to normal as possible, and that includes participating in athletics, explained coach Alice Parsons, who does not use a wheelchair. Her son Andy, 17, does, and is a Raptor.
“We want people to know that there is life after one of these paralyzing accidents,” Ms. Parsons said. “That's why it's so important that we keep this group going.”
Echoing Coach Parsons, Chae Wolterbeek, a spokesman for the National Spinal Injury Association, described the athletic activities as a way for wheelchair users “to reintegrate back into the community.”
The competitive events include marksmanship, swimming, pool, billiards, table tennis, archery, the discus, javelin, shot put, weight lifting, and 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 meter races. The Raptors have been honing their wheelchair and track-and-field skills at Bowsher High School, where a mockup of a slalom course, complete with orange cones, can be set up in the parking lot.
Five of the Raptors compete in the under-18-year-old junior category. Plans call for them to compete in the 2001 Junior National Wheelchair Championship in Piscataway, N.J., July 21-28. They need $8,000 to make the trip, money that has not been raised. But Coach Parsons said she is working on obtaining a grant worth several thousand dollars and is optimistic the required funds will be raised.
The Raptors were started five years ago by Dr. Greg Nemunaitis, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation who practices at Medical College of Ohio Hospitals, as a way to give his patients physical activity.
“People in wheelchairs don't get enough exercise. It's relatively easy for the rest of us to stay in condition. But if you only have your arms, you have to work like crazy to generate a comparable cardiovascular response,” he explained.
Debby Kelleher of West Toledo, whose husband, Michael, joined the Raptors this year, said the chance to socialize with other care-givers at practices and events is important. “It's good to meet others in your same situation.”