Mind over muscle over hills
For teen racers with cerebral palsy, technique is key
Parker Howell
The Spokesman Review
May 01, 2008

For many Bloomies, slogging up the course's legendary hills becomes a feat of endurance.

Try completing Bloomsday with muscles that don't always perform.

That was the challenge last year for 18-year-old Chattaroy resident David Watts, who a race official says may have been the first wheelchair athlete with cerebral palsy ever to finish the 7.46-mile course unassisted. This year, he'll be joined by fellow Team St. Luke's racer Christine Nielson, a North Central High School sophomore who also has the neurological disorder that's caused by damage to the motor-control centers of the brain.

Come Sunday, Watts and Nielson will join nearly 50 wheelchair athletes vying for Bloomsday glory. But for these teens – who also compete with their respective high school track teams, balancing schoolwork with hours of weekly training – the event has added significance.

"You don't realize what you're capable of until you just get out there and give it a shot," said Watts, a senior at Riverside High School. "I just enjoy the environment, and just finishing is an accomplishment."

Wheelchair participants have competed in Bloomsday since 1978, the second year of the race. An official wheelchair division started in 1982.

But as wheelchair participants with cerebral palsy, "as far as I know, they are the first," said Tom Cameron, division coordinator.

Sitting on their knees and strapped into their sleek red racing chairs, Watts and Nielson demonstrated their technique on the Gonzaga University campus this week. Trainer Teresa Skinner, of the Spokane-based adaptive sports group Team St. Luke's, bicycled alongside.

"It's hard, but it's not as hard as I make it look," Watts said after several runs up and down the steep Centennial Trail bridge over Hamilton Street.

Watts finished Bloomsday last year in just under 74 minutes. He didn't hear he might be setting a precedent until just before the race, he said.

"So it wasn't really on my mind until I finished," he said. "When I realized it, I just thought it was a pretty great accomplishment."

While he's still recovering from leg surgery he had last summer, he hopes to match or better his record by a few minutes.

Nielson, 17, began participating in wheelchair track events early last year. In September, she finished a 5-kilometer race in Boise in 25 minutes, seven seconds.

"So when she got through that, we all looked at her and said, 'Bloomsday this year, girl,' " said Skinner, program director for Team St. Luke's.

"Teresa said if you can do this race, you can do any race in the world," Nielson said.

Both athletes cruise in three-wheeled chairs made from lightweight metal. They wear helmets and special gloves lined with plastic and leather used to "punch" the rims of their wheels to propel themselves forward. That requires arm strength, especially on slopes.

"When you're going up Doomsday Hill, if you can kind of glance over your shoulder, you can see the masses come and be like, 'Wow, this is quite the race,' " Watts said.

Uphill may be brutal, but it's speeding down that's nerve-racking. Wheelchair racers can travel as fast as 30 mph; to descend safely, they tap the brakes.

"It's, like, scary," Nielson said. "You have to have control of your chair, and your chair wants to go faster than you want to go."

Watts' right side doesn't respond as fast or as well as his left, he said, making it easier to keep his left arm on the wheel to push. Cerebral palsy also affects Nielson's right side.

"I have to consciously think about proper push technique on my right side more often than on my left," Watts said.

Research shows it takes athletes like Watts two or three times more energy to produce a movement pattern than it does someone without cerebral palsy, Skinner said.

"He's trying to coordinate muscles that aren't always firing in ways he'd like them to fire," she said. "So he's expending a significant amount of energy, because it's not an efficient movement pattern."

Sitting on her knees also becomes painful, Nielson said.

"It makes you push faster," she said.

Watts' accomplishments don't end on the track. Salutatorian of his class, he will receive a full-tuition scholarship to a state university as a Washington Scholar. Unsure of what he wants to study, Watts plans to attend community college in Spokane for two years before transferring to a four-year school. Watts also was instrumental in persuading the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association last year to allow wheelchair athletes' scores to count in high school track meets, said Riverside assistant track coach and science teacher Bill Kemp.

His athleticism has taken him around the world. He set a national record in 2006 for the pentathlon, and he competed in South Africa last year. In July, he'll fly to New Jersey to compete in the National Junior Disability Championships, he said.

"David is just one that's gone after it," Kemp said.

Nielson, whose brother also plays wheelchair sports, primarily competes in the 100 meters and 1,600 meters in track. She placed first at the State 4A/3A track meet in Pasco last spring.

Nielson wishes she'd started racing sooner.

Her goal is to "go to university and race, because it's my favorite thing," she said.

"She has just come out of her shell so much," Skinner said.

"And that's one of the neatest things I think about Bloomsday, too, is just being a part of something that large. … It's just one more step forward in increasing her independence and confidence."

While Watts said he doesn't have any real pre-race rituals, he hinted at the attitude that's carried him this far.

"We're always supposed to smile … right before we start at least, just so we know we're going to have a good race, whatever happens," Watts said.

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.