Girl from Spokane team racing her way to Beijing

Sara Learning
The Spokesman Review
July 01, 2008

Wearing black gloves that look like a smaller version of boxing gloves, Chelsea McClammer punched at the hand rim on her wheelchair Monday.

Making her way down the track at Hart Field on Spokane's South Hill, the teen looked as if she were swimming, her arms forming a butterfly behind her. She seemed oblivious to the blistering sun, focusing instead on the red rubber track before her.

"That's what we like to see," shouted her coach, Teresa Skinner, as the young athlete whirred away.

McClammer is making her own tracks in the history of wheelchair track and field. The 14-year-old paraplegic and member of Spokane-based Team St. Luke's is the youngest on a team of 17 female American track and field athletes headed next month to the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

McClammer, of Benton City, west of the Tri-Cities, qualified in the 800 meters. Another team member, 14-year-old Amber Weber, of Spokane Valley, qualified as a runner-up.

"I was scared at first, but it's finally set in," McClammer said. "Now I'm just focused on my training."

McClammer and Skinner will head to Japan in late August to acclimate and train. Then they will board an Air Force jet with other Paralympic athletes headed for Beijing. The Summer Olympics begin Aug. 8; the Paralympics kick off a month later.

"Even if I don't medal or place, it will just be cool to be there," McClammer said.

It wasn't something she was planning. Her personal goal was to work toward the 2012 Paralympic games, she said.

"I just raced my best and this just happened," said McClammer, who was paralyzed from the lower torso down when she was 6 after a spinal cord injury in a car crash.

The teen also qualified to compete in the World Games this summer in New Jersey, and today she will leave for Eugene, Ore., where she will join other Olympic athletes in a trial at Hayward Field.

She finished Bloomsday in 39 minutes 13 seconds this year, slaughtering her personal record of 47:45 from her first race last year and beating out the third-place finisher in the open women's division.

"I am really just trying to get to the (elite) level as fast as I can," she said.

McClammer joined Team St. Luke's when she was 6 but quit a year later because "Mom didn't want me to travel," she said. Parents almost never travel with the team when they compete.

Three years ago she started racing again.

In those three years, Skinner said, she watched the shy girl with a dark outlook blossom into a social butterfly and magnificent athlete.

She called the teen a natural.

"Not everybody makes it. It's unbelievable," said Skinner, an occupational therapist.

The program, funded by donations through St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute and Inland Northwest Health Services, formed in 1995 as a wheelchair rugby team to "help young adults with quadriplegia get back into life," according to a brochure.

It quickly grew from 10 adults to 30 adults and 30 junior athletes, most of them paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. The first competitive youth team was formed in 1999, the St. Luke's Tornadoes Wheelchair Basketball Team. In 2000, Team St. Luke's Track and Field Team was formed.

"It's a magical program," said Nicole Stewart, a spokeswoman with INHS, the organization helping to send McClammer and Skinner to the games in China. It's the first time an athlete from Team St. Luke's has earned a spot.

"This is huge," Stewart said. "Talk about role models. These are our role models right here."

Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission of The Spokesman Review. Permission is granted in the interest of public discussion and does not imply endorsement of any product, service or organization otherwise mentioned herein.

St. Luke's Rehabilitation Institute
711 S. Cowley St.
Spokane, WA 99202-1330

Inpatient Information: (509) 473-6058
Outpatient Information: (509) 473-6869