Teaching kids to stay in the game

The basketball players settle into drills with the precision and fluidity of a vintage squad - despite the fact that many of them cannot move their bodies from the waist down.

Thanks in part to Gerry Herman, they're a wheelchair team to be reckoned with - and among the favorites in April's national championship tournament. For more than 20 years, he and wife Gwena have been co-directors of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program, making track stars out of youngsters who can't walk, basketball players out of those who can't jump, and confident striders of those whose sudden falls make the able-bodied gasp.

Beginning with just four youngsters, they've a built a program with about 100 participants in more than a dozen sports, including wheelchair basketball, wheelchair football, sitting volleyball and a recreational ice skating program with Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill.

Known as the Bennett Blazers (named after Dr. William Bennett, one of the doctors who lured the Hermans to Kennedy Krieger), the program has been crowned national champions at the National Junior Disability Championships for the past 10 years. Hosted annually by Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA, the championships feature such sports as track and field, archery, swimming and table tennis.

"We found that the earlier you can get to the kids, the more we can use our motto: 'Teach them they can before someone else tells them they cannot,' " said Gerry Herman, 52. "If we can get to the [parents] as early as possible, it prevents whatever uncertainty that exists in their minds about what their kid's going to be able to do."

"They do an excellent job developing their athletes," said Kelli Kellen, director of operations at Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA. "With the level of commitment, professionalism and leadership that Gerry and Gwena exhibit, they are excellent examples to their team, which has translated to tremendous success for their athletes."

The Bennett Blazers basketball team is one of the top teams in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. They are seeded fourth in the NWBA's 16-team national tournament, which will be held in Denver.

Hamill says the Hermans are key to the program's success. "It's been such a privilege to work with Gerry and Gwena. ... They understand the special needs of these youngsters better than anyone."

Having grown up in a South Boston family of teachers, Gerry Herman says he knew while at the University of Massachusetts that he wanted to work with children - but not in a classroom. He began working in programs for the physically challenged, and says, "That's where I've been ever since." His success with programs in Massachusetts led Kennedy Krieger to lure him and Gwena at a time when the area had few opportunities in competitive sports for the physically challenged.

The Abingdon couple launched the Kennedy Krieger program in 1989, providing therapeutic activities for children with varying degrees of physical abilities.

The program uses sports to challenge youngsters to be active, independent and goal-oriented. That was clearly evident at a Bennett Blazers basketball practice. The players use special chairs, which have wheels angled outward, like the letter "A," for better maneuvering. The switch can be awkward; yet when a couple of players struggled momentarily, no one bothered to look their way.

Then came the drills - where the real challenges began.

"Down at this end - half-court knockout!" Gerry Herman bellowed, referring to a grueling drill in which players dribble a ball with one hand while trying to bat away another player's ball with the other hand.

Any player whose ball is knocked off the court is out, until two to four players remain. Then they stage a drill called "lock up," grabbing and shaking the opposing player's chair with one hand while dribbling a ball with the other hand.

These drills, he says, simulate what players often experience in wheelchair basketball, a game of precision, skill, timing, and to the casual observer, high risk of injury.

Even from their chairs, some shoot with the accuracy of a top-notch collegiate player. The program's teams and individuals have competed nationally and abroad.

"We travel pretty far, and some of it can be quite fun," said Daniel Romanchuk, 11, of Mount Airy. He has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, yet he participates in such sports as basketball, sled hockey, swimming, archery and table tennis.

Through the years, word has traveled about the program's success, and it now draws kids from Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"Once they hear about the program, a lot of families will say, 'It's too far,' " said Gwena Herman. "And then they'll come once with their child, and the child falls in love with it. So the parents say, 'We're going to make that effort.' "

Among the program's most popular alumni is Paralympian Tatyana McFadden.

Born with spina bifida in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was adopted by Deborah McFadden of Clarksville, who enrolled her in the program. Not only did she show a knack for sports, Tatyana went on to become a world-class athlete, winning silver and bronze medals in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

"It's a great thing they do here for the kids to get everyone involved, and doing something and trying to be independent, but doing it through sports," said Tatyana, 20, now a student at the University of Illinois. She said most people see a physically challenged person, "and they think automatically know what they can't do. But when you come to a program like this and you have basketball, swimming and track, you see how much they can do and how independent they are."

Tatyana's sister, Hannah McFadden, 14, of Clarksville, is also a standout athlete in the program. Originally from Albania, she has a proximal femoral disorder which led to the amputation of her lower left leg. Still, she is one of the top players on the basketball team, and she credits Gerry Herman for her prowess.

"He's always there for you, and he cares about the team," she said. "He cares so much about the program."

Deborah McFadden has seen both of her girls blossom into standout athletes. Still, she can remember the first time she saw Tatyana fall from her wheelchair while playing sports.

"She was playing wheelchair basketball; she must have been about 7," Deborah McFadden said, "and she went after a basketball and went flying out of her chair and onto the floor. But nobody there panicked. I was like, 'Oh my God!' and I was ready to run out onto the court, but I saw that she was laughing and the other kids were laughing. And she just got back onto her chair.

"It was a lesson for me that, you know what, kids fall. That's what they do. And then they get up and get back into the game."

That willingness to bounce back from miscues allowed Tatyana and others in the sports program to battle through trial and error in learning other tasks. Now many of them can do everything from carrying their own luggage through airports, to using escalators and changing flat tires.

"At airports we gate-check our basketball chairs to protect them," said Gerry Herman. "So what happens is that you have a group of 10 kids in wheelchairs pushing secondary chairs in the airport. It's kind of like our basketball drills, where you push one chair with one hand and the other chair with the other hand.

"And you're always getting people who say, 'You want me to push that for you?' And the kids say, 'We can't let you do that.' Through sports you're trying to maximize independence. Take all the independence they have on the court or on the track or on the ice and transfer it out."

Herman said the public often needs to be educated on how self-sufficient the physically challenged can be.

But some people are well aware of their capabilities. When Tatyana was 9, McFadden recalls driving her daughter and some friends to the movies. When she pulled up to a handicapped parking space, Tatyana's friends stared curiously.

"They said, 'You're in handicapped parking,' " McFadden recalled. "And I said, 'because Tatyana is in a wheelchair.' And they cracked up, and said, 'But she's not handicapped.'

"It never occurred to them. To me, that's the greatest compliment."

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