NEW YORK -- Disabled athletes aren't that much different from those who are able-bodied: they're capable, hard-working, strong and good at their craft.
There's just one difference. Disabled athletes often are confined to wheelchairs, and those wheelchairs become as much a part of their equipment as balls, bats and gloves.
Not all athletes can afford sports wheelchairs, however, and if their insurance doesn't cover it -- or worse, if they don't have insurance -- they may have to endure even more limitations than what's already been dealt to them. That's where the Wheelchair Sports Federation comes into play, and combined with their partnership with Major League Baseball, All-Star Week in New York was extra-special for several deserving athletes.
When Major League Baseball consulted with the Mets to determine which locally-based charities they would support in order to leave a "lasting legacy" on the All-Star host city, Mets Director of Community Outreach Jill Knee quickly voiced her support for the Wheelchair Sports Federation, a national non-profit that provides opportunities for the disabled and wheelchair-bound adults and youth to play sports recreationally and competitively.
In turn, MLB donated 25 sports wheelchairs for adaptive athletes who participate in Wheelchair Sports Federation activities. The presentation was made Sunday morning at the T-Mobile All-Star FanFest on "The Diamond."
The cost of each wheelchair is estimated at $2,500.
"Through the years, the one thing that really prevents a lot of them from playing is the cost of the wheelchairs, because they're so expensive," Knee said. "They can get used ones, but they're not sports chairs. These are made to be sports chairs."
John Hamre, the president of the Wheelchair Sports Federation, has a number of chairs available for athletes to use as a one-day loan. But thanks to the MLB donation, athletes can now take the chairs home and practice their craft on their own time.
"It's like when you go to a hockey rink and you use their skates and they're not your skates, or bowling shoes," Hamre said. "What this allows them to do is take it home, train by themselves, they can work out and really work. It becomes an extension of your body. They strap in and it takes a while to really maneuver it well. You learn it. It's a great thing for them in terms of their rehabilitation."
The chairs don't look like typical wheelchairs. The wheels, for one, are slanted in, and they're wider, making turns easier.
From a comfort level, it's a step below a more standard chair, but from an athletic standpoint, it provides an advantage.
"It's like high heels -- you don't want to wear high heels all the time, or cleats for track and field," Hamre said. "They're not designed to be used all day, because they're not that comfortable for eight, nine hours. They are designed for speed, turning ability and lightness. They can turn quickly."
The Wheelchair Sports Federation hosts, sponsors and coordinates tournaments, clinics, practices, workshops and exhibition demonstrations. It's one of the only national organizations to offer athletes with disabilities such a multitude of adaptive sports programs for all ages.
It raises the bar for competitive opportunities and encourages disabled folks to pursue their athletic ambitions, and in turn, many wheelchair-confined athletes are able to compete at a high level in organized sports.
Jason Soricelli, for example, has been playing wheelchair basketball and wheelchair softball for a Mets-sponsored team for nine years, ever since he became paralyzed from the waist down in a dirt bike accident. He started training for the wheelchair teams five weeks after his accident.
"We're very competitive," Soricelli said. "We travel all over, play against other Major League teams. It's great to be competitive. I was always competitive with sports before my accident, when I was able-bodied. Now being out here in a wheelchair, I'm competing at that high level."
Glancing over at his teammates, Soricelli added, "There's a lot of people that play our sports that cannot afford a chair. Sometimes they don't have insurance, and sometimes insurance doesn't cover these chairs. It really hits deep down inside when you see a player bust his butt day in and day out. And now he's got his own chair. It's his chair."