Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Handcycle moves 8 year old from sidelines to marathon competition

From the Burlington Free Press in Vermont. The newspaper Web site includes a photo slideshow of Jordan and audio interviews.

Patrick Standen, record-holder and two-time defending champion in the KeyBank Vermont City Marathon’s wheelchair division, won’t be shocked if he doesn’t win again Sunday. He’s been training hard on his handcycle, sure, but at age 45, he’s ready to pass the distinction to someone younger. He already has, in a sense. He has been working with two youths who will be making their handcycle racing debuts this weekend. And one of them is making the proverbial leap from lifelong spectator to participant.

Jordan Baker, 8, (pictured) of South Burlington, expects to do the one-mile course in the annual youth “Scram” this morning. Her dad, Dave, will be running alongside, while her mom, Melissa, cheers from the sidelines.

This will be a reversal of roles: Every year since she was born, Jordan has watched Melissa run in the Sunday race.

Another of Standen’s charges, Bryan Bathalon, 16, of Eden expects to do the whole 26 miles Sunday. Bryan has been training for three months, said Standen, who called him “a phenomenal athlete.”

For Jordan’s and Bryan’s coach, the Memorial Day racing weekend has become a tradition. This will be Standen’s seventh marathon. He has been wheelchair racing since 1981 (he lost the use of his legs in a 1980 auto accident), and competing with a handcycle for the last five. He is a mainstay of the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association, a nonprofit that promotes and encourages competitive and recreational sports opportunities.

This racing weekend will engage the entire Baker family. Jordan’s two younger siblings — Spencer, 6, and Caitlyn, 4 — will be running a half-mile in the Scram. On Sunday, it’s Mom’s turn — a half-marathon. Melissa is something of a veteran, having participated the last 15 years, mostly in relays.

Born with spina bifida, a spinal chord defect that deprives her of the use of her legs, Jordan has taken to the handcycle, which gives her a measure of independence beyond her regular wheelchair and makes it easier for her to join her family for runs and bike rides. Handcycles, like bikes, come in many varieties — few gears/many gears, on-road/off-road — and a high-end road-racing model can cost $5,000 or more. Powered by a rotating hand crank, it’s easier on the shoulders than a push wheelchair, Standen said, and allows the user to sit upright during exertion rather than hunched forward.

As Melissa tells it, getting a handcycle was Jordan’s idea. Jordan saw one in action a couple of years ago and announced that she wanted one. The Bakers found a pediatric model made by a company in Florida.

“This year, for the first time, she showed an interest in participating” in the Scram, Melissa said.

“I have a time set up with P.E.,” Jordan said mattter-of-factly, referring to a Tuesday workout she has been having with her adaptive physical education teacher at Rick Marcotte Central School, where she’s a second-grader.

“Last week, her friends came out on the sidewalk and cheered her on,” Melissa said.
As they talked, Standen waited to go for a spin with Jordan along the waterfront bikepath, site of today’s Scram.

“It’s so great to see kids like Jordan starting to participate at this age,” Standen said. “A lot of disabled athletes didn’t have the opportunity.”

As for the main event Sunday, Standen said, the course is not particularly friendly to wheelchairs because of all the tight turns and “hidden hills.”

“The hill that’s really hard is the Beltline,” he said, referring to a ¾-mile stretch heading back into town along Vermont 127. One nice aspect to the Beltline segment, though, is that the wheelchair racers — who this year will start three minutes ahead of the others — meet the lead runners going the other way, “and they’re cheering you on,” Standen said.

Standen has been training regularly along the bike path, where he alternates workouts on hills (Depot Street), intervals and distance — up to 60 miles total per week. He won last year’s race by a second, in one of the closest finishes ever.

His time was 1 hour, 43 minutes. He won’t be surprised if his record falls to someone else, he said. (Sunday’s race has 12 wheelchair-division entries, according to organizers.) His attitude is competitive but “philosophical,” as well it might be — he teaches philosophy at St. Michael’s College.

Standen conferred with Jordan before they set off.

“I told her she was all set to lay down a scorchingly fast time,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re probably going to win your division.’

“She said, “It’s not about winning,’” Standen grinned. “She’s got a great attitude.”

Jordan and Standen headed off, side by side.

“She pushes harder and harder,” he said when he came back. “She makes me sprint.”
“I saw the gleam in her eye,” Melissa said.