Mark Shepherd has all the tools a scrappy point guard needs: speed, smarts and an instinct for the game's flowing geometry. He has one other tool—a wheelchair. He is a paraplegic. Four years ago, in the wee hours of July 17, 1986, Shepherd's car Hipped over on a sandy stretch of road near Fairfield, Calif. His back was broken, and he was left with no feeling below the T-12 vertebra, two thirds of the way down his spine.
That, however, is not what comes to mind when you watch Shepherd on a basketball court. At the 10th National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which were held in New Orleans over five hot, humid days at the end of June, the blond, 36-year-old Shepherd was a dynamo. One moment the former army sergeant was driving the length of the court to flip in an underhand layup, the next he was dropping a 12-footer. His passes found Gordon Perry, a member of the 12-athlete guest contingent from Great Britain that was participating in the New Orleans games. Perry, 36, lost his left leg and part of his pelvis to cancer 11 years ago. Though Shepherd and Perry had never met before, they were assigned to the same basketball team. Perry said, "We knitted together from the first." Indeed, they combined for 33 points to lead their team to a 57-40 victory in the championship game.
The rules of wheelchair basketball are only slightly different from those for able-bodied players. Competitors can touch their wheels twice without dribbling; a third touch draws a whistle for a "walk." They can stay in the lane for five seconds. A "personal advantage" foul, unique to wheelchair basketball, is called when a player takes advantage of an athlete more severely disabled than he—when, for instance, a player raises himself up to gain a height advantage over his opponent. But these differences are minor, and the wheelchair game otherwise looks familiar. Players don't dunk, but they do set picks, work the give-and-go and shoot three-pointers.
Shepherd is an ardent spokesman for his sport. He quickly pointed out to someone who hadn't watched wheelchair basketball before that impressive as the games in New Orleans might have looked, they were not top level—the teams were put together in New Orleans to assure a more even competition. "We don't want people to view us benevolently," said Shepherd. "I'd rather not be included in the scheme of things if it is only done out of charity. We want them to watch because our games are exciting and fast paced."
September 9, 1990
The Wheelchair Games in New Orleans were certainly that. But Shepherd and the 540 other athletes who took part provided more than entertainment. They also breathed life into the platitudes some people recite about the salutary benefits of sport. The competition was fierce but never unfriendly. Athletes were as eager to see their rivals perform well as they were to do so themselves. They gave their all, whether that meant bench-pressing 375 pounds, as did 236-pouhd Kater Cornwell of Charlotte, N.C.; swimming the 25-yard free in 47.84 seconds, as did Ken Wright of Cupertino, Calif., who is classed 1A—the most severely limited of quadriplegics—yet is a world-class athlete within that group; or putting the shot 14'10", which was a personal best for 30-year-old Adrian Patterson, a 1B quadriplegic from Orange, N.J., who was a PFC in the Marine Corps. "I don't have much distance," said Patterson, "but I have beautiful form."
They left ordinary people struggling to describe the feelings they inspired. Actually, the word inspired would make wheelchair athletes cringe. "They don't want to be p.r. people for the disabled," said Jennifer Young, a physical therapist and coach for the athletes from the Seattle VA Medical Center. "But that's kind of what they are."
Like it or not, they inspired each other. After watching quadriplegics maneuver up and down ramps and backward and forward through the pylons of a tortuous slalom course, 44-year-old Lewis Martinez, a quadriplegic who won gold medals in three track events, turned to a friend. "You should see the guys who steer with their chins," he said. "It freaks me out."
Similarly affected were those who clustered outside Tulane University's Reily Student Recreation Center racquetball courts to watch Shepherd take on Dan Hendee, the able-bodied coach of the Ann Arbor, Mich. wheelchair athletes, in a racquetball exhibition. Hendee won 15-7, 15-8, 15-5, but had to work hard to do so. "With the two bounces [a wheelchair athlete is allowed], I have very little advantage," said Hendee. "I can get him off balance, but I can get other people off balance, too. Mark is so agile, those two bounces don't give me much advantage."
In the interest of fair competition, wheelchair sports use their own classification system. "It's sort of like what we do in able-bodied boxing and weightlifting," said Dr. Anne Marie Glenn, who was the medical director of the games. "In able-bodied sports, we group by weight; with the disabled, by remaining function. Usually, an athlete doesn't change class. He may get stronger, and he definitely acquires new skills."
About a third of the athletes in New Orleans were competing in novice divisions, and they were treated with special affection by the more experienced athletes. "It's all about participation at these games," said Cornwell. "It's the best medicine the VA could have given to a veteran, because it brings so many people out. We brought 16 novices with us."
One of them was 27-year old Carlos Moleda, who took part in last December's invasion of Panama and is now permanently wheelchair-bound as a result of an injury there. "A lot of what we did is top secret," said Moleda. "Our assignment was to take out Noriega's plane. We got into a bad firefight with his elite defense force. Four guys died, and nine were injured bad. I was shot twice, first in my back and then in my left leg. I had a bad infection. I went from 185 pounds to 130."
Moleda was lucky to survive. "Ever hear of the Navy Seals?" he asked. "We were athletes. We did the hardest training in the American military—swimming and running. That's probably what saved my life."
He is still undergoing therapy at the Seattle VA Medical Center. "I had my cries," he said. "You have to accept it, and it's hard. It's a very big change. People think, He can't walk. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of things you can't do." With the encouragement of Young, his physical therapist, Moleda was able to get out on a ski slope three months after he was wounded. In New Orleans he won silver medals for track in the Class 4 Novice 100 (21.13) and 200 (43.86).
Moleda was fortunate to find a system of wheelchair sports in place. Said Jim Martinson, who last year was given the games' top honor, the Spirit of the Games trophy, "When I got hurt, the question was, What are we going to do with all these guys?"
Martinson's story neatly parallels society's growing awareness of all that wheelchair athletes can do. In 1967, as an able-bodied, athlete, he won the prestigious Mt. Rainier Cup downhill ski race and entertained reasonable hopes of making the Olympic ski team. Instead, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. On June 29, 1968, Martinson was loading supplies onto a helicopter about 20 miles from Danang. One of the other men stepped on a mine. "It blew me through the air," said Martinson. He remained conscious for eight awful hours, then was unconscious for six days, during which he lost more than 15 pints of blood.
"When I woke up," Martinson said, "I looked down at the end of my bed and—holy mackerel!"
Both of his legs had been blown off just above the knees. "I went from six feet, 185 pounds, to three feet eight, 114 pounds," said Martinson. "But the real frustration was not so much losing my legs—though that has to be part of it—but not being able to do anything. I wanted to snow ski, but there was no adaptive device to make it possible."
For the next two years Martinson tried to escape boredom through heavy drinking. In 1974, prodded by members of a church youth group he was advising, Martinson entered a road race, Tacoma's Sound-to-Narrows 10K, and finished near the back of the pack. He was hooked, nonetheless, and raced every weekend for the next two years.
"I was a total oddity," said Martinson of those early efforts. "[Out training] I would be stopped three times a day by people offering rides. Then, when I started road racing, I was never on the sports page. I was always in the human interest section. One day a reporter called and said, 'This is inspirational. I want to do a story on you.' I said, 'Only if you put me on the sports page.' "
Martinson won the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon in 1981, and the next year founded Magic in Motion, a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of sports equipment for the disabled. One of the devices he helped to develop is the "compensator," a lever that automatically sets a chair's front wheel at the correct angle for making turns. Before that, racers turned their chairs the old-fashioned way—by pushing harder with their right hand than with their left.
"It was as if [an able-bodied runner] had to hop through the turn," said Martinson. "There used to be a rule against the compensator. They finally came around when they realized it made racing faster. That's what you want."
His work with Magic in Motion, based outside Seattle in Kent, has limited Martinson's training severely. He now covers about 50 miles a week in training, half of what he was doing when he was a top racer. When not racing in New Orleans, Martinson was helping other athletes fine-tune their chairs. He sat trackside, surrounded by toolboxes, chairs and admirers, many of whom were racing in Magic in Motion's top racing chair, the Shadow. A gossamer cage of phosphorescent yellow, blue and pink, the Shadow, which costs between $1,600 and $1,800, is manufactured of ultralight 4130 Chrome/Moly and weighs just 14 pounds. Martinson lifts himself in and out of it casually.
"I don't see myself as disabled," said Martinson. "It sounds crazy, but I really don't. I'm not a whole lot different than I was. I don't remember what it was like to have my legs."
This year's Spirit of the Games Award went to 42-year-old Mike Trujillo of Huntington Beach, Calif., who swept the Class 2 Open track 200 (33.68), 400 (1:04.96), 800 (2:12.89) and 1,500 (4:09.86). Like Martinson, Trujillo is among the world's best road racers. After breaking his back in a car accident in 1967, he did not get into sports until 1983, when some friends invited him to watch them play basketball. He got his first taste of competition at that year's Veterans Games, and since then has enjoyed a remarkable career. In 1987 Trujillo won the world marathon championships, in Stoke Mandeville, England, with a time of 1:51, and the next year, at the Paralympics in Seoul, he won bronze medals in both the marathon and the 1,600 relay.
Trujillo made a modest proposal. "I'd like able-bodied athletes to accept us as athletes," he said. "I'd like them not to look at the chair so much, but at what we competitors are accomplishing. We're not out there for recreation or to take a stroll. We're very serious."