Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michigan event adapts luge for people with disabilities

From The Muskegon Chronicle in Michigan. In the picture, Lester Erlenbush, a paraplegic, starts down the luge track during the Adaptive Luge Clinic.

LAKETON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — More than a dozen participants of all ages came from across the state to take part in the third annual adaptive luge clinic Sunday at Muskegon State Park’s Winter Sports Complex.

Tom Hernon, 46, of Grand Rapids coached the event. He became a paraplegic in 1997 when he was injured in a dirt bike accident at Big Air in Newaygo. Hernon learned how to luge eight years ago in Park City, Utah. For the past three years he has been sledding regularly in Muskegon.

“It’s great to see this many people out here. We want to get some young people involved in our able-body programs,” Hernon said. “It’s so neat for them to be able to compete. I’d like to see one of them make it to the Olympics.”

The event has grown quickly from two participants the first year to more than a dozen this year.

“This program has significantly grown,” said Susan Cloutier-Myers, executive director of Disability Connection. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone. That’s what’s great about universally designed access — anyone can use it, people with or without disabilities. You can design out disability in almost anything if you have the vision.”

Sam Wassink, 18 of Alto, was the first to take a run down the luge track. He was paralyzed from the waist down five years ago during an ATV accident at Silver Lake Sand Dunes.

“It’s pretty scary at first, but the track really kind of carries you,” Wassink said. “You go a lot faster than you think you’re going to.”

Jim Rudicil, executive director of the Muskegon Sports Council, announced that Hernon and himself recently secured a $7,000 grant from the Christopher Reeves Foundation to help continue the park’s adaptive sports program. Hernon has built several cross-country ski chairs that are currently in use at the park. He’s also revamped two luge sleds to be handicapped accessible.

“It’s been 40 years since I went sledding,” said Stewart VanAlstine, 65 of Lansing. “I think the park is great. There are so many kids that are handicapped who want stuff to do, but there’s no place to do it.”

Universally accessible equipment in the park was funded by a four-year statewide $15 million grant called the Access to Recreation Initiative funded by Kellogg. Last year the lodge, trails, and skating rinks were made handicapped accessible. An all-season fiberglass luge track, currently being built in Germany, will be installed at the park this year. It will use wheeled-sleds and be accessible to people of all abilities.

“The DNRE (Department of Natural Resources and Environment) changed their mission statement to add accessibility. It’s a huge change in philosophy. They’ve realized that grants must include universal design and include people with disabilities,” said Cindy Bourkhour, director of the initiative.

“They’ve made a huge statement recognizing the importance to have accessibility for all citizens.”

The event was underwritten by Alcoa Howmet and hosted by the Child Abuse Council and the Winter Sports Complex