Saturday, September 26, 2009

AccesSportAmerica brings athletic activities to people with disabilities

From Wicked Local in Massachusetts:

ACTON, Mass. - Inside the Concord Armory gymnasium, five athletes stretched their legs and performed pushups before playing soccer.

Standing in a circle on Sept. 21, the participants, including children and young adults, squatted to Walt Disney movies, naming characters from various titles, including “The Love Bug” and “Mulan,” before returning to rest positions.

“You really want to work your quads,” said instructor Ross Lilley, helping participants while standing behind them by putting his arms under their arms and squatting with them, at the first session of the fall soccer and conditioning program in Concord.

Before feeling the burn in their legs, the athletes exercised their abdominals with 30 crunches, toned their hamstrings via 12 repetitions of leg curls and strengthened their chests and arms with as many pushups as possible.

But these athletes are individuals with disabilities, ranging from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome, wishing to develop physical education skills through high-challenge sports.

Acton-based AccesSportAmerica has been inspiring for nearly 15 years children and adults of all disabilities to achieve their bests through mostly fitness and non-traditional sports, including windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking. Thousands of athletes, including some Acton residents, participate annually in high-challenge programs, such as soccer and tennis, personal training and conditioning.

“The feeling is that the bar is held way too low for people with disabilities,” Lilley said by phone. “Sometimes just some simple training … gets people to go much farther than they ever dreamed.”

To help athletes succeed, the national nonprofit agency located on High Street either creates it own or uses adaptive equipment, having about 50 windsurfers, oars, kayaks and other watercraft used at its numerous New England and Florida sites. It also uses adaptive devices such as seats, standers and hand-hooks.

Since 1983, Lilley has been pioneering the field of adaptive windsurfing, which currently uses seven styles of adaptive activity, including using fixed and swivel seats on boards. In rowing, which former Olympic athlete Gary Piantedosi helps coordinate, participants use fixed or sliding seats that partners can share.

In Hawaiian outrigger canoeing, instructors use four-person boats that can accommodate four to six athletes and trainers or eight to 11 athletes or trainers. For tennis, participants may use hand adaptations and shorter racquets as well as sport wheelchairs if necessary.

For nearly 30 years, Lilley has been teaching high-challenge sports to individuals with disabilities. The initiative began when Lilley was a former pastor at the South Acton Congregational Church, teaching part-time to those interested windsurfing at the beach.

In 1986, Lilley’s son Josh was born and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy — a group of disorders that includes learning, seeing and thinking difficulties due to brain development problems. Describing Josh as a “built-in test pilot,” Lilley eventually left the church to incorporate the nonprofit in 1995.

“If you put some of these opportunities out there, people will rise to the occasion,” Lilley said.

With more than 1,500 athletes participating in year-round activities, the agency also offers travel sports camps — intensive one to two-week annual sports and condition programs nationwide, including Los Angeles — and soccer clinics at the Concord Armory and intensive personal training programs at Brighton’s Oak Square YMCA.

The organization also features conditioning and sports programs in collaboration with Boston Breakers athletes and “City Streets” activities through the Boston and Quincy public schools that permit in-school soccer and conditioning.

This summer, disabled veterans participated in water sports, rowing on the Charles River to help continue their drive to remain physically active after becoming injured in combat.

“There is an amazing sense of community, especially with the people we see year round,” said program director Nate Berry. “They learn and do sports they never thought they could do before.”

But what’s most important to AccesSportAmerica is seeing athletes thrive, learning more about sports and themselves.

“I guess what’s really nice is that at every session I’m surprised,” Lilley said. “I’m very hopeful. I love it when I hold the bar high and someone succeeds.”

Acton-Boxborough Regional High School student Ben Bosbach, 17, has been participating in programs for the past 12 years after his parents Russ and Nancy met Lilley about 15 years ago at South Acton Congregational. After bonding as parents with special needs sons, the Bosbachs enrolled in windsurfing their son who has had Down syndrome since birth.

Russ Bosbach said one of the program’s advantages is that Lilley treats participants as “regular, varsity athletes,” pushing them to reach their physical bests.

Over the years, Ben has also undertaken Hawaiian outrigger canoeing and soccer, which his father says is one of his favorite activities.

“When the program grew, Ben grew with it,” Russ Bosbach said. “He loves sports. Just having it as a part of his life is great.”

Because of his participation, his father said, Ben Bosbach’s social skills have improved, especially through his relationships with volunteers and friends.

“Any more [social], he’s going to be the mayor of his high school,” Russ Bosbach said, laughing. “It’s been great.”