by Eric Johnson, Metro Spirit
While few of us will be able to forget the sight of double amputee Oscar Pistorius competing against able-bodied runners in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, for Grovetown’s Scott Winkler and Evans resident Jeff Snover, overcoming physical limitations is nothing unusual.
Nearly five years ago the two founded Champions Made From Adversity (CMFA), a nonprofit organization geared toward assisting the physically disabled through sport and leisure activities, and now Winkler is representing the U.S. in his second Paralympic Games.
For Snover, who serves as CMFA chairman, competitive sports have given him both an outlet and a purpose. Injured in a stateside accident while taking use-or-lose leave time, Snover, a logistics warrant officer with the Army, suddenly found himself without the use of his legs.
“Personally, I never really dealt with anything from Iraq between that time and the accident, so all of a sudden, my life was turned completely upside down,” he says. “So, I dealt with being in the chair pretty easily — it was the Iraq stuff that I was stumbling over, and I could blame it on my chair. My anger, my outbursts — even though it wasn’t related to my chair, I could use that as my excuse for being a jackass.”
This was in September 2003, three months before Winkler, an Army service technician, was paralyzed when he fell off an ammunition truck in Tikrit, Iraq. The two men would rehab together at the VA here in Augusta.
“I had a little bit more of the rehab under my belt,” Snover says. “He was angry when he first came to rehab and the therapist encouraged me to talk with him and see if we could connect.”
They did, and soon they were discussing the frustrations of adapted sports.
“The first adapted sports thing I did was golf because I was a golfer before, and it sucked,” Snover says. “It was a totally different game.”
Then, after a clinic in Atlanta, he started playing tennis once a week at Rae’s Creek.
“I got involved with folks with disabilities, and that’s when I found out about the military sport camps out in Colorado Springs,” he says.
Eventually, both he and Winkler would attend the military sport camps, and for Winkler it was the beginning of a Paralympic career.
“He was identified as having potential in the seated field events,” Snover says. “They had him pegged, and he’s the kind of person who’s driven and did what he needed to do.”
Winkler started setting records at his first real competition and was soon representing the U.S. at the Paralympics in Beijing. Now, he’s in London as part of the 227-member Paralympic Team.
While the U.S. Paralympic movement is under the U.S. Olympic Committee and has the same objective — winning medals — not all places valued adapted sports in the same way.
Snover, who had become interested in handcycling, wanted to hold a clinic to introduce more people to the sport, but he was met with resistance.
“It was perceived that there wouldn’t be a great number of people who would be interested in handcycling,” he says.
And that’s when Snover and Winkler realized that there was a need for an organization like CMFA.
“We didn’t care if it was 10 people or a 100 people — we felt everybody should at least be offered the opportunity to be introduced to it,” he says. “So that’s when we sat at my kitchen table on Sundays and talked about what our mission would look like, who would we serve and what would it take.”
By January 2008 they were an approved nonprofit able to seek funding, which brought them to their first crossroads.
“Some folks were kind of trying to push us into finding that million dollar check to build that dream facility, but we didn’t feel confident that that’s what we could do,” he says. “It was our mindset that we’ll prove it and once we prove it, we’ll be recognized for it and once we’re recognized for it we’ll be able to grow at a measured pace.”
And so they started small, but not too small. When they were finally able to hold the cycling clinic — the one they received resistance over — 27 people attended.
Soon, they started working with the VA doing more one-time introductory events, and they now have regular participants in several adapted sports.
Throughout the growth, Snover has continued his handcycling training. He recently hit the talent pool standard in handcycling. He still pays for his coach, but once an athlete hits the National Team standard, coaching, camps and clinics are paid for, as are trips overseas.
And while CMFA certainly helps athletes with such lofty ambitions, it’s mainly for those in the community looking for a way to participate with a physical disability.
“Basically, if somebody wants to see something, we’re more than happy to try to do it,” says Program and Services Manager Krista Geden. “We’ll get the time and the space and the people.”
Continuing with a program requires a certain level of attendance, but Geden says providing that initial opportunity is important, especially since people are still learning who they are and what they do.
“I went to a VA amputee support meeting yesterday,” Geden says. “A couple of older guys who have been there for a while didn’t know one thing that we had going on. That’s a real eye opener, because we’re everywhere — in different programs, at different hospitals — and people still don’t have a clue.”
Some of the sports can get rough, however. Particularly wheelchair rugby.
“It’s my favorite sport,” Geden says. “It used to be called Murder Ball.”
Snover agrees. “The chairs are heavy and they look like something out of Mad Max.”
Geden says that after three years of practicing and scrimmaging, the six-person rugby team has become a formal team and is currently planning out its season.
Snover estimates they probably have 75 participants enrolled in ongoing programs, and probably 150 that they see individually, either at clinics, the Paralympic Experience, which they will hold next month at the Kroc Center, or for their popular waterskiing event, which is a partnership with the Children’s Medical Center at Georgia Health Sciences University.
Offering tubing, kayaking and adapted waterskiing, the yearly event draws over 150 volunteers and up to 50 participants.
“Some of them — this is the only time we see them,” Snover says. “Parents and kids, as they grow up, say this is the most special day of the year.”
For Snover, the smiles make all the effort worthwhile.
“Every once in a while I feel that all we’re doing is writing grants,” he says. “But when we have the events, it’s like this is what it’s all about. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
And Snover knows what an impact adapted sports can have on someone dealing with a disability.
“It’s easy to give up hope,” he says. “It really is. We’re not looking to make athletes, though. We’re looking to advance people’s lives.”
And those lives can advance in unexpected ways.
“We’ve had guys join the basketball team and when we tell them we’re going on a trip and they’ve got to get themselves there, they seek employment just to support their wheelchair basketball habit,” he says.
Some colleges are even giving out scholarships for adapted sports.
Ultimately, Snover would like to transition out of his leadership role and see the organization get its own facility. While the current relationship with the Kroc Center is rewarding and beneficial, he says the inevitable scheduling issues make him wish for a space of their own.
“If we had offices at our facility, Krista wouldn’t have to go take chairs to events or practices like she does now,” he says.
As for that million-dollar grant.
“We could now manage a million dollars,” he says confidently. “We’re at that level.”
On the Air
Given the increasing interest surrounding the Paralympic movement, viewers will have several opportunities to check in on the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, which run from August 29-September 9. While not exactly the 5,535 hours the NBC networks devoted to the recent Olympic Games, it nevertheless represents an improvement over past years.
Beginning August 29, the U.S. Paralympics YouTube channel will provide 10 daily highlight packages, while usparalympics.org will also be covering the games.
The NBC Sports Network will air several one-hour highlight shows, and on September 16, NBC will broadcast a 90-minute special from 2-3:30 p.m.
In addition to the U.S. coverage, the IPC, which is the international governing body of the Paralympic movement, will air 580 hours of live sports on paralympics.org, including 1,000 hours of video on demand.