Fourteen-year-old Vance Ott is the newest member of the Coahoma High School track team thanks to a program by the Texas Regional Paralympics Sport.
The CHS freshman was born with Spina Bifida, a condition that affected his spine and left him with the need to use a wheelchair for mobility. However, Vance does not let his physical disability keep him from participating in activities his loves.
“Vance doesn’t realize how many people he inspires with his tenacity and his strength,” said his mother, Marlana. “He never gives up. He always takes a challenge head on.”
Stock shows, recreational baseball and serving as a trainer for the CHS football team are all activities Vance has excelled at for the past several years.
“He is very mentally strong, and he loves sports in general. If he could, he would love to be out there with the football boys,” Marlana said. “That is why he loves being a trainer but this (track) is what is available for him to compete in, and he already has his mind set. He wants to excel.”
On Sunday, Vance received his racing chair and some one-on-one training with 7-time Paralympic and 3-time Olympic athlete Saúl Mendoza. Both the chair and the instruction time were made possible through the Texas Regional Paralympic Sport Loaner Chair program.
The 4-year-old program was created to fulfill a need after UIL decided to add wheelchair racing to its state track and field meets, according to Wendy Gumbert of Texas Regional Paralympic Sport.
“We were the adaptive sports organization working with them (UIL) on the project, so we knew the only way it would work was if the kids could somehow access chairs,” Gumbert said. “The chairs are about $2,800. We decided we’d better start raising some money and make that happen."
“We have approximately 100 chairs in our Loaner program,” Gumbert continued. “We have about 70 that are loaned out and that’s not just high school. We do it for our wounded service members and junior high and elementary age kids as well.
These specialized racing chairs need to be specifically tailored to each athlete's dimensions so it can become an extension of his or her body, Gumbert said.
On Sunday, Mendoza, who has medaled at both the Paralympics and Olympics for the country of Mexico, drove from Wimberley, Texas to Big Spring to deliver the chair and spend time with Vance and his family teaching them about the sport and the device.
After a couple of laps around the Big Spring High School track, Vance seemed to absorb Mendoza’s lessons accelerating after each turn. He also practiced shot put from a field chair Mendoza brought to show as a demonstration.
“For the field chair, we look to the school to provide it for the athlete,”Gumbert said. “A field chair can be ordered as a generic size and they are much less expensive. They are under $1,000. A kid in high school, a kid in junior high, a kid in elementary can use that same chair.
“A school can invest in it and have that chair in its ISD for a 10-year period and move it around to others schools as the need arises where a racing chair is not going to fit the next kid,” she continued. “That’s why our loan program is so important.”
Joining Vance on the track Sunday was para-athlete Hope Santiago who drove from Monahans with her parents to receive training from Mendoza. Now a freshman in high school, Hope has not only competed in para-sports for the last two years but set records at the junior national level in 100m race and the shot put in her age group. She is also a twirler in the high school marching band.
By participating in these types of activities, students with physical disabilities are learning to live independently, Gumbert said.
“If you are trying to increase someone’s arm strength, the things that they do in a regular institutionalized rehab is very good but it’s not something the kid wants to do day in and day out,” she said. “You put a young athlete in a sport and they are increasing that arm strength day in and day out and increasing more than they can in regular rehab just by pure participation and the joy of sport.
“It also creates independence,” she continued. “By coming to some of our events outside of the school system, which is what we try to get them to come to, they meet others within the realm of Paralympic sport and realize the opportunities that are available to them. They can go for college scholarships. They can participate in college in their sport and then the doors are open to them and they are like wow I can do these things.”
After Vance expressed interest in the sport, Mike Martinez Jr., CHS SPED teacher, found the program and helped coordinate with Texas Regional Paralympic Sport, Vance’s family, high school coaches and CISD administrators to jump start the para-athletic program at CHS.
“Mr. Martinez did an outstanding job of making this happen and working through the details with the family, Texas Regional Paralympic Sport and our coaches to make sure everything has gone smoothly,” CHS Principal Christina Cox said.
Although Texas Regional Paralympic Sports works with the school to help support the program, the family is required to take sole responsibility for the loan of the chair, a stipulation that allows athletes to participate in events outside of UIL sanctioned meets, Gumbert said.
A second stipulation requires parents and athletes to apply for a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation or the Kelly Brush Foundation to fund the purchase of a permanent racing chair. Once the family receives the permanent chair, the loaner chair is returned to the Texas Regional Paralympic Sport.
According to the Texas Regional Paralympic Sport, more than 21 million Americans live with a physical disability. For more information on about the Loaner Chair program, visit https://www.texasregionalparalympicsport.org/
(Information and photos courtesy of Coahoma Media.)