Runners share the thrill of competition through Athletes Serving Athletes

Laurel Leader
"We have the Special Olympics and they're great, but this would be something different."

It's not hard for David Slomkowski to pinpoint the exact moment when he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

After learning about a unique father-son partnership, Slomkowski, who grew up in Laurel, immediately decided to set up a nonprofit organization called Athletes Serving Athletes to help persons with disabilities take part in mainstream races.

Three ASA athletes will participate Saturday in the Maryland Half Marathon and three will compete in the 5K, both set to take place in Maple Lawn. All six will be pushed in three-wheeled joggers by 21 volunteers working in teams.

Slomkowski was spurred into action after watching a 2006 television interview with Dick Hoyt, a Massachusetts man who pushed his son Rick in a jogger-stroller in more than 1,000 races.

"I was a sobbing mess when I heard about Team Hoyt and I just kept thinking, 'Why isn't someone doing this in Baltimore?' " Slomkowski recalled.

"We have the Special Olympics and they're great, but this would be something different. People with physical disabilities could race alongside champions."

Founded two years later in 2008, ASA focuses on helping those with little or no mobility experience the competitive spirit and camaraderie that embody sports through the assistance of able-bodied runners known as WingMen.

With entry fees covered and equipment supplied, no cost is borne by athletes or their families.

"The inclusion piece is huge, especially in the sports arena," said the founder and executive director. "The cool thing about what we do is helping [our athletes] feel that competitive adrenaline."

While the organization has come a long way since its early days, one of the biggest influences on its founder and executive director was growing up in Laurel.

Born at Saint Agnes Hospital in 1968, he was adopted at 30 days old by Robert and Carmen Slomkowski, who moved to Adkins Road in 1966 and owned Central Tire on Route 1 for many years before retiring.

"They're my blood," he said. "I loved to run, skip and jump, and I was never involved in anything growing up that I cared about more than sports.

"I look back at those times playing baseball for the Laurel Boys and Girls Club and realize how much my coaches meant to me," he said, "and I still keep in touch with my friends from Pee Wee Baseball."

After attending Oaklands Elementary and Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle schools, he enrolled in DeMatha High School after his family moved when he was in ninth grade. He later played lacrosse at Washington College in Chestertown and returned after graduation to live in Laurel for a while before moving to Baltimore.

But it wasn't until 2006 that a series of emotionally wrenching events came together to put him on the path that would lead to his life's work.

He was going through a divorce around the time when a close childhood friend died in a motorcycle accident, and he realized he wasn't taking care of himself physically as he worked to deal with these events.

"I had to sit back and say, 'What am I doing with my life?' I was miserable," he said.

To begin regaining control he turned to sports, which had always anchored his life, and made a point of running in the Baltimore Marathon that year. And he also happened to watch the TV interview that would alter the direction of his life forever.

Slomkowski, who has since remarried, could clearly envision how taking part in mainstream events would benefit people with physical limitations, even though he personally knew of no one dealing with a disability. So, he left an entrepreneurial career to start ASA.

"I've been blessed to have an active life through no hard work of my own, unlike people who are confined to a wheelchair," he said. "And I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh! I can help them? Sign me up.'"

Yet, he admits that the early days were rough going.

"We weren't handed a manual on this, and the first couple years were organized chaos," he said. "But we made it jell."

Kevin McNulty, a real estate developer in Laurel, had cultivated a friendship with Slomkowski as his younger brother's buddy long before he saw him running in 2008 with ASA's first athlete, James Banks.

"I decided to become a WingMan, and it's addictive," said McNulty, a Timonium resident who estimates he's run in 50 races. "David is so passionate about this. He does everything 100 miles an hour and 100 percent, and I'm glad to be with people who are looking for solutions."

Michael Greenebaum, co-founder of the Maryland Half Marathon and 5K, agrees, but has a slightly different perspective on Saturday's event.

"The WingMen of ASA are running with a dual purpose," he said in an email. "They are not only enabling an individual to participate in our race who otherwise could not [have], but they are also helping to raise important money for cancer research."

One of the best ways ASA has of recruiting volunteers and athletes alike is appearing in races, and the organization has a full annual schedule of 65 events, including marathons, duathlons and triathlons.

"When people compete in races alongside us or see us from the sidelines they get interested in finding out what we're doing," Slomkowski said. "You don't have to be a stud athlete to volunteer. Our corps is made up of people with good hearts who make our athletes feel like rock stars."

Amy Gallagher knows firsthand how ASA events impact her 10-year-old son Ian, who has a rare seizure disability and mild cerebral palsy.

She plans to run alongside Ian as a WingMan in Saturday's race and a dozen others this year. Her husband, Ryan Gallagher, will also run in a few, though he and Ian's younger brother, Daegan, usually cheer from the sidelines.

"Some people don't know how to act around someone with a disability, but these volunteers are not at all nervous around Ian," said Amy Gallagher, who lives with her family in Columbia. "Everyone cheers and calls his name and interacts with him as a person. He gets the full experience of competing and he loves it."

As for what's down the road for ASA, Slomkowski says he wants to be a regional player, but not a national one.

"There are plenty of opportunities for us right here in Maryland," he said. "We have 100 athletes in our system, but there are hundreds more we'd like to reach.

"We want people to get involved and we want to help more people. We've just scratched the surface."

For more information on ASA, go to athletesservingathletes.org. To find out more about the Maryland Half Marathon and 5K, which benefits the Greenebaum Cancer Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center, go to uomms.convio.net.

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