Wheelchair athletes get shot at school sports honors

When strangers look at Forest Cardenas, they see a diminutive young man in a wheelchair.

But Cardenas’ peers on the Everett High School track and field team see a teammate – someone who shows up for every practice and contributes as much enthusiasm and effort as anyone.

“He’s a really nice guy, just kind of laid back and just enjoys life, it seems like,” said distance runner Axel Stanovsky, the Seagulls’ senior co-captain.

Cardenas, a junior, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal bones fail to fuse correctly. He is paralyzed from the waist down. But Cardenas’ disability hasn’t stopped him from participating in sports.

He has been involved with a variety of sports (including swimming, basketball and track) with Seattle-based Northwest Adaptive Sports and is in his third year competing for the Everett track squad.

For about a decade, wheelchair athletes in the state of Washington have participated at regular-season high school track meets, albeit without the chance to score points for their teams. They’ve also competed in wheelchair-only exhibition events at state championship meets in track, cross country and swimming.

But this school year, a change to the state rule opened the door for wheelchair athletes to contribute as never before.

In January the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which oversees the state’s high school athletic programs, approved a change that creates a team trophy based on a school’s combined scores of wheelchair athletes and able-bodied athletes at the state championships.

This year’s state meets are scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.

To score points, wheelchair athletes must meet or exceed minimum standards at this weekend’s district meets in nine events: the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races, and the shot put, discus and javelin.

Traditional team trophies will be awarded based on the performance of teams without wheelchair athletes, but the new combined prizes add extra motivation for wheelchair participants, and maybe for wheelchair-bound youngsters who never previously considered getting involved in sports.

“That’s really the (point) behind the whole change: (attracting) potential athletes who would really benefit through participation but they aren’t aware of the opportunities,” WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said.

The rule began to take shape in September after wheelchair sports proponents made a presentation to the WIAA executive board. One of the presenters, Teresa Skinner, said Washington has always been a national leader in supporting wheelchair sports, but the new rule is a key breakthrough.

“It’s important to be able to contribute and score points just like everyone else,” said Skinner, wheelchair and adaptive sports coordinator for Team St. Luke’s in Spokane.

She estimates 16 wheelchair athletes currently compete in track across the state. Washington, Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Alabama are at the forefront of promoting the cause, but no state comes close to Washington in terms of wheelchair track participation at the middle school and high school levels, Skinner said.

Now those numbers could surge even more.

“I think it’ll definitely increase the participation of wheelchair athletes,” said Everett’s Stanovsky. “I’m really excited because Forest is out there working as hard as any of the rest of us, so it’s nice that he kind of gets more involved.”

Cardenas competes in the 800, 1,600, discus and javelin. His season-best times in the 1,600 (6 minutes, 48 seconds) and 800 (2:56) are significantly faster than the boys state standards, and his personal-best discus and javelin throws (26 feet and 23 feet, 8 inches, respectively) also exceed state-qualifying marks.

It means he has a great chance Wednesday and Friday at the 3A district meet in Edmonds to qualify for state and score points for Everett.

“It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the team more,” Cardenas said earlier this season. “People are paying attention to me more because they realize I can contribute.”

Skinner of St. Luke’s has seen similar reactions in 12 years as a wheelchair sports advocate.

“The power of sports is amazing with able-bodied people, as far as the impact and life lessons you get,” she said. “It (multiplies by) 10 with someone with a disability. It truly changes their lives.”

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