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Weightlifter in wheelchair aims for Paralympics prize

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Don't talk to Joe Singleton about his limitations.

He would rather shift the conversation to his achievements, his goals, his dreams.

Singleton has much to talk about. Like the martial arts black belt he earned two years ago. Or the college degree he plans to earn soon. Or the trip he is about to make to Barcelona, Spain next month, when he will represent the United States Disabled Sports Team as a power lifter in the Paralympics, the international Olympic equivalent for wheelchair athletes.

Singleton's mind races, as his thoughts tumble forth. He recalls his days as a troubled youth on the turbulent streets of southeast Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. He brags about how, at 38 and after only two years as a weightlifter, he qualified for international competition. He talks of fate, a subject he knows all too well. He remembers waking up 15 years ago in a hospital after breaking his back in a car accident, and learning he was paralyzed from the waist down.

It is then that you break contact with Singleton's piercing eyes and notice he is sitting in a wheelchair.

"All I'm doing is exploring. Why put any limits on yourself?" Singleton says. "Am I disabled? What is disabled? How could I be disabled and doing what I'm doing?"

You ponder that question while you watch Singleton, all 115 pounds of him, bench-press 225 pounds during a workout.

"He [Singleton] is the only real athlete I've ever trained," says Bill O'Loughlin, who works with Singleton at the Columbia Athletic Club three times a week. O'Loughlin points to his head and adds, "Up here, Joe's not disabled. He's an athlete."

Look how far this athlete has come, and how quickly. Two years ago, Singleton took up weightlifting to toughen up his body, after spending years battling a persistent infection in his leg. He underwent two major operations on the leg between 1982 and 1987.

Weightlifting "was just a therapeutic attempt to keep me out of the hospital," Singleton says. In the fall of 1990, he entered his first competition at Salisbury State University and won a first-place medal. Singleton then started reeling off victories. His therapy became an obsession.

Five months ago, he went to the Paralympic Trials in Birmingham, Ala. The most inexperienced of the weightlifters, Singleton figured he had an outside shot to qualify for the Paralympics Team. After being disqualified on his first two attempts, he bench-pressed 187 pounds on his final try. He made the team.

Last week, there was Singleton at the Columbia Athletic Club, lifting 185 pounds off his chest 15 times. His bulging arms and vice-like handshake tell how far he has come. He leaves for Barcelona Thursday. The Paralympics take place Sept. 3-14. The weightlifting competition takes place Sept. 10-11.

"I'm not supposed to be in this competition. I'm still a rookie," says Singleton, who figures he has a realistic chance to win a bronze medal. "My next goal is to officially break the national record [220 pounds]. I'm the person capable of doing it. I have the work ethic."

Singleton says he didn't discover his work ethic until after he became disabled. Growing up on the racially-tense streets of Washington, Singleton walked around with a constant chip on his shoulder -- the result, he says, of being a 4-foot-9, 90-pound boy at the age of 16. He didn't hit 5 feet until he was 18. He is not much taller today.

"I had a complex against big people. The only thing a little man had going for him was his big mouth," he says.

Singleton's mouth often got him into trouble, sometimes with the law. Ultimately, he landed in a reform school for four years. In 1973, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, and proceeded to wrack up an unenviable military record full of fines and insubordination incidents. As his discharge date approached in 1977, Singleton had no intention of re-enlisting, and the military had no interest in keeping him.

Then, three months before his discharge, Singleton's life changed forever. He had been at a friend's wedding, and was riding home after the reception as a passenger in a friend's car. While Singleton slept in the front seat, his friend lost control of the car, which careened across a median strip and struck a diesel truck. Police found Singleton unconscious, lying in the car's windshield. Singleton's friend escaped serious injury.

Singleton spent the next 10 years in and out of Veterans Administration hospitals, battling medical problems while trying to face up to his permanent disability. He nearly went bankrupt. He lost friends. He lost the woman he had hoped to live with forever.

"Those first 10 years in this chair were a bitch," he says. "I stayed shut up in the house. I had suicidal thoughts. I struggled a lot. I still struggle."

One useful avenue Singleton found during that period was the martial arts. He began taking lessons in 1983. Today, he is well-versed in about a dozen variations of the art, and he demonstrates vividly how he can subdue an attacker with deadly results. He hopes to be a martial arts teacher someday.

He has other plans. He went back to school several years ago, and is only 20 credits shy of a degree in public administration, which he says he will earn next year at Bowie State College. He already is looking ahead to the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, where he plans to win a weightlifting medal at the age of 42.

Today, Singleton lives alone in a Columbia condominium he purchased seven years ago, relying mainly on disability checks he receives from the government.

As Singleton looks ahead to whatever rewards await him, he looks back at that car accident as the turning point in his life. Don't get him wrong, he says. He wishes he could trade his wheelchair for the use of his legs right now. But these days, Singleton wants to be a role model and inspire others, disabled or not, to achieve. He wonders if he would worry about that had he not been dealt this hand.

"I've learned how to take care of myself and how to live independently. I could have been out on the street. I could have been robbing you," he says. "Still, what I go through, I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

"People don't understand the complexity of day-to-day life for us. Our lives are so complicated. We can't put this [chair] on a shelf. We're not angry at anyone. We're just saying give us a chance."

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