When Michelle Wheeler rolled across the finish line at Sunday’s Blue Cross Broad Street Run, you could see the determination etched on her face, her arms pumping like pistons as she turned the wheels of her racing wheelchair. That gutsy determination paid off with a win in the women’s wheelchair division.
Wheeler, 29, a member of the MossRehab/Global Abilities wheelchair team, accomplished what she had set out to do—but then, so do a lot of athletes. Winning was no sure thing, and she knew it. Under the best of conditions, rolling 10 miles down Broad Street at breakneck speed is no easy feat. On Sunday, with temperatures in the low 50s and in the driving rain, it was draining.
“My gloves kept slipping off the wheels, I kept hitting a lot of potholes and mud, and I had a lot of rain in my face, but I kept pushing myself through it,” she said in an interview following the awards ceremony. “I have been preparing myself for years to get better and better, and I feel like this year is my year, so I think I did great on this race considering it was raining and slipping. I think I did pretty well.”
That the Mount Laurel resident won was testament to her own innate toughness and maturity, but also to the strength that comes from a loving and supportive family. It’s a spirit she shares with her siblings, including her brother Dan, who has spina bifida, a talented multi-sport athlete who was also in the race. Dan enjoys the races, too, but he’s in it more for the social interaction.
Michelle has a spinal cord injury, the outcome of abuse as a very small child. She and Dan are the adoptive children of Joan and Bill Wheeler of Shamong, N.J. There are nine children in all in the family, three of them biological.
Each of the six adopted children came with what some might regard as challenges. But where some people saw challenges, the Wheelers just saw children.
(Michelle, Dan and Bill Wheeler, at right)
“We always thought that there were so many kids that needed homes, needed to be part of a family, especially with disabilities,” Joan Wheeler explained in a recent interview. “They were perfect to us.”
The first adoptive child to join the Wheeler household was Christopher, who went on to become a champion gymnast at the 1995 and 1998 Special Olympics World Games. “He was the only Special Olympian to be able to do an Iron Cross in gymnastics at the time,” she said. Another adopted daughter, Melissa, has also taken part in adaptive sports.
Joan and Bill Wheeler’s schedule would exhaust the average soccer mom. Dan and Michelle have played so many sports, they can’t remember them all. Between the two of them, they’ve done track and field, archery, hockey, basketball, skiing, rowing, kayaking, football, volleyball, tennis, and baseball … in addition to wheelchair racing. Joan Wheeler recalls having to get up early every Saturday morning to drive Michelle and Dan to the Bennett Institute in Baltimore to take part in a day of adaptive sports.
“What I like is that she doesn’t feel sorry for us. It was always, go do it. There’s no reason why you can’t do it for yourself."—Michelle Wheeler, speaking of her mother Joan
From the Wheelers’ perspective, getting the kids involved in sports was one of the best ways of helping their kids learn that what they could do was far greater than what they couldn’t do. For Dan, that message resonates. “Despite my obvious differences,” he said, “I’m still a human being like you.”
And in Michelle’s case, athletics might have been something of a balm.
Michelle came to the Wheeler family when she was 9. To hear the details of her life before then is beyond difficult.
When she was 1, her spinal cord was severed.
“What I was told,” Joan said, “is that most likely she was kicked. It was on her birthday. The hospital described it as blunt force trauma to the spine.”
“Yeah, happy birthday,” Michelle added. “I ended up with a spinal cord injury incomplete. (“Incomplete” means there is some movement or feeling below the area of injury.) Life was real.”
It was about to get worse. She spent time in three foster homes before winding up with the Wheelers. One of them she really liked. But on the whole, her life before 9 was harrowing. At 5, she was hit by a bus and spent time in a body cast. “I had a babysitter and she wasn’t holding my hand like she should have been doing,” Michelle recalled. “I’m guessing the bus driver saw the babysitter, but didn’t see me. I broke a leg and an arm.”
In another instance, she almost lost a toe because she had burned it on a heater.
Bill and Joan Wheeler certainly weren’t blind to the challenges faced by that 9-year-old girl, but saw the strength in her, as they saw and encouraged different strengths in all their children.
“What I like,” said Michelle, looking at her mother, “is that she doesn’t feel sorry for us. It was always, go do it. There’s no reason why you can’t do it for yourself. OK, yeah, you have a disability but that doesn’t make you who you are. You just go out and get it done and advocate for yourself.”
With her hard-fought win on Sunday, that’s a message Michelle Wheeler has clearly taken to heart.