Athletes Serving Athletes a win-win for volunteers and their special-needs partners

Kristine Howanski’s athletic epiphany came as a complete surprise to her.

After years of practice in the pool before eventually becoming an individual medley specialist for the University of Virginia swim team, the Lutherville resident finally discovered why all the energy she expended on the sport was more than worth the effort.

Her “a-ha” moment came when she was towing an athlete with a disability, Kevin DeLeggi, on a special harness as she swam in her first Athletes Serving Athletes relay triathlon while he appreciated the ride.

Howanski said that’s when she fully understood that all her previous efforts in the water were paying off in a big way.

“That’s the moment it clicked for me,” said Howanski, a partner and founder of the Towson family law firm Howanski and Erdman. “All those years of practice and hard work were not in vain. Swimming is such an individual sport, and this was doing something for someone else instead of just for myself.”

According to ASA’s website, its mission is to use “athletic activity as a catalyst for improved physical fitness, increased self-esteem and life skills development for individuals living with disabilities,” a message that clearly resonates with Howanski and a slew of other dedicated volunteers.

Those volunteers help athletes across a broad spectrum of disabilities, from paralysis to cerebral palsy and many other disabling conditions , lead a more active lifestyle.

“It’s fun and completion is always nice to do,” said DeLeggi, 29, a quadriplegic who has also competed in the Harrisburg and Boston marathons and is gearing up for the Baltimore Marathon as well.

His participation in major endurance events takes a toll on him, “but in a good way,” said his mother, Mary DeLeggi.

“There’s a side to Kevin that just wants to let loose,” she added. “It lets him do what he really wants to do.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, athletic participation by people with disabilities “reduces the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes.”

Athletic participation also can help people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength, lower blood pressure, control joint swelling and pain, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve moods and promote general feelings of well-being, the CDC website says.

The ASA theory is that plenty of people with disabilities love to compete, so there’s a need to help them achieve that goal.

“These kids have the heart and soul of an athlete,” Howanski said. “They never complain during a race or training run.”

As for the athletes with disabilities, they “normally hear about us through word-of-mouth referral from others already involved,” said Julia Kardian, the athlete manager for ASA.

While ASA volunteers and their disabled friends participate mainly in a variety of road races sponsored by other organizations, including the Stoneleigh Stampede 5K and Towson Healthy Heart 5K last spring, the Lutherville-based nonprofit also stages its own annual event, the ASA RunFest 2018 5K/10K in Hunt Valley on Saturday, Oct 13.

The RunFest is the single biggest event of the year for ASA because it brings together all eight of what the organization calls its communities that operate throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area, the Eastern Shore and south-central Pennsylvania.

“We normally have over 70 teams competing alongside 1,000 runners,” said Dave Slomkowski, ASA founder and executive director. “It is a sight to see. One hundred percent of proceeds from this event go to ASA so we can keep offering our program free to the athletes and families we serve.

“Out of the 105 races we compete in, this is the only one we ‘own.’ It is an understatement to say this is a big deal for us.”

In the beginning, Slomkowski needed help to get the organization off the ground, and Howanski was there for him.

Slomkowski, 50, a former lacrosse player at Washington College, said that his initial impetus to start the organization came when he watched a documentary on Rick and Dick Hoyt, a father-and-son tandem from Massachusetts who competed in distance running and other endurance events despite the younger Hoyt’s cerebal palsy.

They eventually founded Team Hoyt and the Hoyt Foundation, which became models for Slomkowski’s organization.

“The Hoyts really inspired me,” Slomkowski said. “I wanted to know who was doing something like that in Baltimore.”

When he discovered a local void in that regard, the father of five from Cockeysville eventually proceeded with the idea by enlisting the help of a few friends, including Howanski and her husband, Bill.

“I was sick and tired of talking about what a good idea it was,” Slomkowski said. “So, I finally wrote a business plan and went for it.

Asking Kristine Howanski to jump on board was a no-brainer, he said.

“She has an incredibly bright mind and has heart and passion for the people we serve,” Slomkowski said. “She doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. She and Bill are rock stars.”

Kristine Howanski said that she knew that joining the organization would be a good fit for her as well.

“I knew Dave in my capacity as an attorney,” she said. “He knew I was running my own business, so he knew I could help him get things started. He picked a handful of people with different gifts to help out.”

It was then that Slomkowski’s concept of allowing disabled folks to enjoy — with the help of what the organization calls “wingmen” — participating in endurance-type sports was born.

The concept is for disabled athletes to be pushed or pulled by wingmen who commit to raising $350 in donations by race day, and also are asked to participate in three group training runs prior to the event.

The money covers expenses for the athletes and their families so they can participate in an event.

More experienced wingmen may then go on to become wingman captains, who are responsible for the safety of the athlete and his wingmen during a race.

Slomkowski said that ASA has about 465 wingmen and 300 other volunteers serving athletes.

Wingmen are asked to learn race etiquette and how to handle any equipment the athletes may need, such as a feeding tube or oxygen tank, Howanski said.

Moreover, a captain might have to lift an athlete into or out of a jogger or a harness, Bill Howanski said.

“It’s such an honor to be able to do that for someone,” he added.

Captains also are asked to set a comfortable pace for a race before handing off the responsibility of maintaining that pace to one of his wingmen.

“When you first start, it’s a little daunting to be responsible for the wingmen and the athlete,” Kristine Howanski said.

In late September, the ASA participants enjoyed a rare sunny day to compete in a triathlon, during which the wingmen push the athletes on runs and pull them on cycles or in the water.

In the swimming portion of the event, she stayed nearby a couple of wingmen who were new to swimming with an athlete in tow.

In the beginning, the prospect of participating in a triathlon was daunting to Howanski, considering that, at age 50, she was neither a runner nor a cyclist.

Fast forward 10 years and the Dulaney alum is running between 16 and 20 miles per week and does almost twice that on a bike.

She still swims, too, although that’s the sport that comes easiest to her.

After all, the Howanskis will do whatever it takes to help others.

“There’s just a satisfaction in seeing those athletes get out of the house and do something athletic,” said Bill Howanski, a retired steelworker. “At the end of the day, it’s how you affect others. So when the idea came up, Kris seized it right away.”

The couple said that they participate in about 15 running events per year and one triathlon, and that doesn’t include bimonthly training sessions held on the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail.

“It’s all about the athletes and their parents,” Kristine Howanski said. “Their whole world is taking care of their kids. It’s nice to be with the athletes while their parents are taking a breather.”

Bill Howanski said that the payoff for ASA volunteers is huge.

“I can’t imagine any athlete we have helped has gotten more out of it than we have,” he said.

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