Special Needs Athletes

Hannah Flesh and Phillip Resnick, Print Assistant Sports Editors

n 1960, a new style of Olympic games was introduced to the sports world in Rome, giving athletes with physical disabilities the chance to compete at high levels. Now referred to as the Paralympics, which is similarly formatted to the coveted Olympic games, it began to develop as more sports were added. Not to be confused with the Special Olympics, who invite athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete, the Paralympics opened its first winter games in 1976 in Sweden and hold its games at the same time as the original games.

WJ alum and graduate in the class of 2010, Michael Lautenberger is one of thousands of athletes around the world hoping to compete in the 2012 Paralympic games in London. As a Learning For Independence (LFI) student at WJ, he was able to enjoy staying active and competing at a high level by participating in crew and cross country/track at WJ. Lautenberger has since committed to rowing and cross country skiing.

During his tenure at WJ, Lautenberger also ran for track and cross country, expanding his realm of sports despite his disabilities. According to track/cross country coach Tom Martin, Lautenberger “worked as hard as he could,” to compete and run at a top level.

In his first two years on crew, Lautenberger was “truly a full and included participant,” according to parent Diana Lautenberger. However, in his senior year of crew, Mike was one of four senior boys on the team and “none of [the] four were really given the opportunity to participate at the level they had in prior years,” she said.

Despite a “mixed-bag” experience with WJ crew, Mike has been training hard to row for the upcoming Paralympic Games in two years. Because of his time playing sports at WJ, Lautenberger is now able to take his competitive spirit to the international stage. Introduced in 2008 and the youngest of all the Paralympic Games, world rowing gives all kinds of athletes the chance to compete at the top level of the sport.

Combined with his talents for rowing, Lautenberger will also cross country ski with the Special Olympic team as well as running indoor track as part of his post-WJ career.

Academic Support Center (ASC) students have continued to voice their interest in staying active physically and by trying out for various sports teams and signing up for competitive clubs. With the development of the Special Olympics and Paralympics, there have been more opportunities avenues to continue playing sports past high school.

Similarly, ASC members of the WJ ice hockey team are demonstrating how students are able to actively engage on high level sports teams outside high school as well.

Outside WJ, the two play for the Montgomery Cheetahs, a local hockey team dedicated to special needs athletes. The combination of playing for WJ and the Cheetahs has allowed an intense concentration to hockey this upcoming season. With three weekly practices, they hope to improve their skills and become better players.

While at WJ orientation, the two learned about WJ ice hockey and were excited for the opportunity to play.

“Everyone encouraged them to join,” said one of their parents. “They feel fully included by their teammates and coaches.”

The overwhelming acceptance from the team has led the two to love their experience on WJ ice hockey. Thus far , they have participated fully in practice and are ready to play and get ice time in games.

“Meanwhile, even time that they spend on the bench is important because it allows them to be part of the team,” said their parent. “This is so important for kids who have not always been included in mainstream activities.”

Back at WJ, Crystal Dovman, the coordinator for Best Buddies and special education teacher, has noticed the increase in the interest of LFI and other special needs students to join teams. She has encouraged the students to try out, but has been disappointed with the number of kids who have been cut or rejected from various teams.

“The sports groups at WJ do not discourage someone from trying out,” she said. “However, some of our students do get cut pretty quickly.” She hopes that more coaches, despite a student’s disability, include them on teams at least by offering them a simple managerial spot.

“It takes a lot of courage for any student to try out and our students who are in the LFI program many times take rejection a lot harder than others,” she added.

Despite the physical or mental challenges a student may have, the chance to be part of a team at WJ is a goal many hope to reach.

The cross country and track teams, as co-coach Tom Rogers has noted, warmly accept any and all runners.

“What really impresses me is how our students not only accept these special needs runners, but how they go out of their way to make them feel welcome,” said Rogers.

Even if a student cannot participate in high school sports, the Special Olympics and Paralympics along with other competitive clubs outside WJ uniquely for special needs athletes, present a particular chance for disabled kids to compete at the same levels as their high school counterparts.