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December 19, 2014

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Fast and Fearless: Wheelchair sports give disabled athletes an outlet in Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

Blake Dickinson, 11, a sixth-grader at Cadwallader Middle School, practices with his trike on the track during a Paralympic Sports Night at Rancho High School on Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

Paralympic Sports Night

Blake Dickinson, 11, a sixth grader at Cadwallader Middle School student, practices with his trike on the track during a Paralympic Sports Night at Rancho High School Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Launch slideshow »

The Dickinsons were looking for an outlet. They needed something for 4-year-old Blake, who was born with spina bifida, to get into the same way his brother and sister could run around with their friends during recess.

Blake’s wheelchair and crutches helped expand his horizons, sure, but they were also constricting in a world that rarely felt like it was built with kids like him in mind.

“I was looking for something hard and something I wanted to do,” Blake said.

Rules differences

Two of the most popular Paralympic sports are wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby. Here’s a look at some of those sports’ rules and regulations:

• Wheelchair basketball: Most games follow the same rule book, from five players on a regulation-sized court to scoring (2- and 3-pointers as regularly marked). Traveling is called when a player touches his wheels more than twice after receiving a pass or dribbling the ball. The chair is deemed part of the body, so rules like the block/charge call are applied the same. In regulation formats, players are classified on a scale of 1-4.5 according to skill level and physical ability.

• Wheelchair rugby: Also played on a basketball court, with goals set up at the opposing end lines. The game is 4-on-4. Goals are scored by getting at least two wheels across the goal line while maintaining possession of the ball. A player with the ball must bounce or pass it within 10 seconds. Also, an offensive player can’t be in the opposing key for more than 10 seconds, and teams can’t keep three defenders in their own key at the same time. Contact between the chairs is allowed, but aggressive contact may draw a whistle for a foul. There’s a 40-second possession clock on offense.

Nearly eight years later, that’s what he still has.

On a Wednesday evening in April, Blake was wheeling around the Rancho High track while his father and sister looked on. His race chair belonged to Paralympic Sports Club Las Vegas, a partnership between the city of Las Vegas and the Clark County School District.

This was the once-a-month activity night the club holds for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s designed as an introduction to wheelchair sports.

“Each sport has a different chair,” said Jonathan Foster, who runs the city side of the program. “It’s kind of like if you’re playing soccer, you have soccer cleats; football you have football cleats.”

There are chairs for basketball, tennis, quad rugby, sled hockey, adaptive cycle, and track and field, all of which the club offers. And the low end for a specialty chair, Foster said, is $2,000, with more advanced or personalized chairs going for $10,000. If the city and School District had to independently purchase enough chairs to field several sports, neither could probably sustain it. The same goes for families.

“We wouldn’t have had the funding for (Blake),” Blake’s dad said.

Blake Dickinson started with basketball, which is probably the most common Paralympics sport. Over the years, the 11-year-old has tried pretty much everything and taken a liking to the track and, more recently, the hockey rink.

Most of the club’s youth programs take place after school or on weekends, with adaptive physical education teachers instructing.

A few kids who start in the youth program might move on to the Division III basketball team or to the top level that competes against states in the West Coast Conference. Mostly, the local club exists as what Foster calls a “community-based recreational program.” It provides opportunities that might not be available to disabled people elsewhere.

“It’s really special to see a kid come in who’s never been here and to see their parents and them grow,” Foster said.

Soon Blake Dickinson will go to Arizona to compete on the track in a Paralympics Nationals qualifier. Two years ago, he was in a similar situation and fell off the track when he had trouble taking a corner. Once he was helped up, Blake concealed the pain and finished the race before bursting into tears.

Overcoming that and finishing the race was a step, and now he has his sights set on more.

“He’s done lots of stuff the doctors were sure he was never going to do,” Matt Dickinson said.

Now, Blake has experience and prowess in multiple sports and several friends along with it.

“I’ve met some people here I never would have seen or talked to without this,” he said.

One kid, Cameron, is about half Blake’s age.

“I’m like his role model,” Blake Dickinson said. “To have other people look up to me, it’s cool.”

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