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Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. Its goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

Burke's Adaptive Sports Program Helps those with Illness or Injury Find their Passion

February 27, 2019

Tim sailed his entire life, but seven years ago, a skiing accident left him paralyzed “from the armpits down.” During months of hospitalization, Tim thought he would “never be able to do anything again.”

Tim sold his boat.

A couple of years later, Tim heard about a one-day adaptive sailing clinic, and that’s where he realized he was mistaken. He observed the Burke Physical and Occupational therapists helping participants get out of their wheelchairs and into sailboats, paired with experienced sailors. He watched them sail into the wind.

That day, he also overheard Alexandra Oudheusden, Director of Therapeutic Recreation at Burke, talking with coworkers about Burke’s hand-cycling program, and he knew he had taken a first step onto a new path.

Sailing and hand-cycling are just two of the adaptive sports programs that people with life-changing injuries or illnesses can participate in, Oudheusden explains.

“Adaptive sports are a way for individuals with lifelong limitations to stay active and also meet people who might share their experiences.”

As Tim explains it, he and his fellow cyclers and sailors are very happy about being outside, doing something they used to. “It makes you feel whole again, a part of society, not ‘stuck’ in a wheelchair.”

Confronting a major life change makes mountains out of ordinary tasks, like bathing, dressing, and getting out of bed. There’s learning to maneuver a wheelchair, and months of physical and occupational therapy to train your body to do things in new ways.

Fortunately, says Tim, “With time, work and effort, you can live your life meaningfully and fruitfully.”

Burke’s adaptive sports programs depend on dedicated volunteers, who work alongside the professionals to make the programs possible. Mike, a retired New York assistant district attorney, is one of those enthusiastic volunteers. An accomplished runner, with 20 marathons under his belt (and an equal number of triathlons), Mike also volunteers with Achilles International, helping disabled athletes prepare for elite races, like the NYC marathon.

Mike works with Burke hand-cyclers, bringing the specially equipped bikes to the site, and assisting the athletes into seated positions on the bikes. He rides his own bicycle, alongside them, looking out for cars that may not see the low-slung profile of the hand cycles.

“It’s very humbling for me,” he says with a laugh, “because during races, I can’t keep up with them. On an open course, they can go 25 miles per hour. I feel so small around them!”

Hand-cycling requires arm strength, but multi-medaled Paralympic Table Tennis champion Jennifer Johnson says, “it’s not so hard. I was afraid of the gears at first, but once I got going, I really liked it.”  

Johnson, who had polio as a child and wears leg braces, found that a less-recumbent hand cycle suits her well. She did the cycling last summer—and she also tried waterskiing, which was ‘very freeing.’  (Snow skiing, ‘not so much,’ she adds.)

“Sports give you more challenge and discipline. Nothing else can give you the independence and confidence of sports,” she says.

She should know: the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame member has traveled the world as a competitive athlete.  She calls Burke her “second home” because she spends so much time there, playing table tennis and helping out with other Burke programs.

The athletes and volunteers praise the Burke pros, for their professional skills, as well as their unflagging support. Burke has offered adaptive sports since the 1970s. In addition to wheelchair table tennis and the hand-cycling team, Burke sponsors races and partners with other organizations for clinics in sailing, waterskiing, boxing and kayaking. Burke also offers a golf clinic on campus as well as rock climbing clinics at various off-site locations.

The therapists guide patients and community members alike toward sports that may return them to a former passion-- or ignite an entirely new one.

--Carol Vartuli

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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