When you attend the Broad Street Run on Sunday, May 3, keep your eyes peeled for the wheelchairs that look like long, skinny tricycles. And then focus your attention on the determined athletes propelling them along. If they don’t redefine what the word “disability” means in your mind, then nothing will.
Those dogged competitors are all members of the Global Abilities Race Team, sponsored in the Broad Street Run this year by MossRehab, driving home the institution’s creed—Challenge Accepted—in one of the most exciting and visual ways possible.
All of the wheelchairs will display MossRehab labeling, but the connection to the hospital’s core mission goes far deeper than that, says MossRehab Recreation Therapy Team Leader Anne Weiland, CTRS, MHA. The race team’s participation stands out as the living personification of that institutional credo. “Moss definitely makes that connection by offering the team the opportunity to be in the race,” she says. “Global Abilities is near and dear to our hearts.”
Leading the race team is A.J. Nanayakkara. If you think the Broad Street Race course is long—it’s 10 heart-pumping miles—consider the long road Nanayakkara traveled to get there.
Now 41, Nanayakkara was 20 and a martial arts student when he suffered a spinal cord injury, the result of a bad fall during a class. He had been active, if not the most naturally talented athlete, all his life. “I did a lot. I played tennis. I ran cross country. I was always the last person in the cross-country race,” he laughs. “Then I found martial arts and I became actually pretty good at that. I trained 20 hours a week. And then all of a sudden that was done."
Nanayakkara came to believe that he had lost control of his own life. He fell into a deep depression; he attempted suicide on several occasions. That dark period in his life lasted nearly 10 years—until one day, during a doctor visit, he saw a flyer advertising wheelchair rugby.
Nanayakkara had played rugby before his injury, so he thought he’d give it a shot. Playing wheelchair rugby is incredibly physical. The sport is so rough and tumble, it has earned the nickname “murderball.”
“It’s basically bumper cars on a basketball court”, Nanayakkara says. “We sit in armored wheelchairs and we bash into each other for an hour.”
In time, thanks to wheelchair rugby, Nanayakkara‘s worldview began to change. One of the toughest challenges for many people who sustain disabling injuries, he says, is the sense that they have lost control over the own lives. They become dependent on others. “It’s tough, but getting involved in sports helps us get that control back.”
Another advantage: playing on a team exposes athletes with disabilities to other athletes who have gone through the same trauma.
In that sense, Wieland says, playing on a sports team might be seen as a kind of peer counseling. “Knowing you’re not alone and knowing other people are doing this is inspiring. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning.”
Will everything be the same as it was before the disability? No. But with help, Wieland says, people with disabilities can begin to see their world in a new, far less limited way. “I think of it as a ‘new normal’,” she says. “Your new normal leads to new things.”
Nanayakkara, who hold a master’s degree in disability policy from American University, takes the “new things” approach pretty far. He has become a serious wheelchair rugby competitor, playing in tournaments as far away as Rio de Janeiro. He also coaches, and he has taken on more wheelchair sports than you count on one hand: water skiing, horseback riding, scuba, tennis, surfing and more.
With his wife Kelly, he established the Global Abilities Foundation, whose mission aims to help integrate persons with disabilities into society.
Wheelchair racing is just one more challenge for the unstoppable A.J. Nanayakkara.
For the Broad Street Run, six of the Global Abilities racers will traverse the course, which extends straight down Broad Street from the Einstein campus all the way to the Navy Yard. They’ll have a five-minute head start to give the field of runners a chance to thin out.
As with cross-country, Nanayakkara says he’s not exactly the strongest racer. “I’m one of the slowest wheelchair racers, if not the last. But I’m not competing against the other racers. I’m competing against myself and who I was yesterday. That helps me finish the race.”
Wieland knows that the competitiveness of Nanayakkara and his teammates will challenge public perceptions and drive home the message that virtually anyone with a disability can accept some incredible challenges—even strapping themselves into custom-made, $3,000 to $5,000 racing wheelchairs and hurtling down Broad Street in the nation’s largest 10-mile race.
“It’s so inspiring,” says Wieland. “It’s a true test of the human spirit. I don’t see someone with a spinal cord injury. I see someone living life on his own terms. I see a friend succeeding.”
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