Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Arizona center designed for fitness enthusiasts with disabilities

from The Arizona Republic. In the picture, Edward James (left) and Duane Blau (right) help disabled Air Force veteran Keenan Lee, of Mesa, into the pool at Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center in Phoenix.

At age 14, Nick Springer was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he came down with a bout of meningitis that left him a quadruple amputee. But that hasn't deterred him from participating in sports.

Now a world-class athlete, the Phoenix resident is a member of the U.S. National Wheelchair Rugby Team, which will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. The games run Aug. 29 to Sept. 9, soon after the Olympics and in the same venue.

The rugby team won the gold medal in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

"Getting into disabled sports is one of the big things that pulled me through," Springer said. "It helps with quality of life."

He is a regular at the Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities at 5031 E. Washington St. in Phoenix, which opened last fall. The center, a program of the non-profit Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, covers 45,000 square feet and is the first of its kind in the western United States.

It has a basketball court, indoor track, 50 pieces of fitness/training equipment and a 40-foot rock-climbing wall donated by the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority.

The center also has a therapy pool, lap pool and whirlpool with elevators, chair lifts and ramps.

"Quite a bit of effort went into making sure every piece of adaptive equipment was built in," spokesman Loren Worthington said.

On the basketball court, the hoops can be raised or lowered for those in wheelchairs.

Overlooking the basketball court is a one-tenth-mile walking track with a low-impact surface to make walking easier for people with joint or bone ailments, and the track surface promotes friction, helpful in allowing leg prostheses to get a good grip.

Overlooking the court is a clear railing so people can sit in wheelchairs and watch the action. The railing is equipped with electrical outlets to accommodate people on ventilators.

Other programs at the center include yoga, nutrition education, adaptive rowing and power soccer.

Springer said participating in athletics gives him a goal, a benefit for a lot of people.

"Kids with new injuries ... want to strive and do better at sports. It helps with rehabilitation, gives them a better attitude and makes for a stronger body," he said.

Another advantage of the center, he said, is getting out and meeting others in wheelchairs.

"If they see this guy who's successful in work, has his own family and can go hang out with friends, it gives a different outlook," he said. "It gives guys who maybe are newly injured ... an opportunity to work out on their own terms and be around other guys in wheelchairs. That's what great about it."

The center hosted a scuba-diving, rock-climbing and rugby event Saturday for disabled veterans, among them Keenan Lee of Mesa, a retired Air Force captain, pilot and veteran of Operation Desert Storm. He suffered work-related injuries that left him in a wheelchair and in constant pain.

One thing he used to love was scuba diving -- he's certified -- and he had the opportunity to return to it Saturday at the center.

"I appreciate how they're supporting the troops and giving us a better way of doing things like scuba diving," Lee said. "I haven't done that lately because of my injuries."

One of the regulars at the center is Cory Hahn, who was playing baseball for Arizona State University last year when he injured his spine in a dive for second base, leaving him paralyzed from midchest to his toes.

"This place is a huge plus," he said. "Coming back to school in Arizona, the big question was a place to work out. This is 10 minutes from campus."

Not only is he strengthening muscles and improving skills at independent living, he said, he likes the center's supportive atmosphere.

"It has a positive vibe," he said. "Everybody here has some sort of injury. We all relate and learn from each other. ... This is a great place to be. Anybody looking for rehabilitation, this is one place they should come to."

Another regular is Savannah McKnuckles of Phoenix, who lost both feet in a pedestrian-truck accident in California.

"This gym has so many different machines," she said. "I love to exercise. I talk to the Lord and ask Him to give me strength."