Rochester Rookies sport a ‘can do’ spirit
Wheelchair team helps athletes gain more confidence
John Boccacino • Staff writer • September 29, 2009
Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester NY
All Amanda Merlau had to do for her Merton Williams’ Middle School art class was jot down a list of tasks or activities she couldn’t do, then, the next day, before her peers, Amanda would present her list by drawing all those can’t do activities.
So as Amanda sat in her Hilton home contemplating this unusual piece of homework, she thought long and hard about what exactly she couldn’t do before coming up with her response.
Pleased with her answer, Amanda waited for her turn in school before presenting her teacher with the following: “I may not be perfect at everything, but there’s nothing I cannot do.”
According to Amanda, her teacher was “befuddled” when reading her response, because it was believed all students would list at least one activity they couldn’t do.
But the answer made sense to Amanda.
Growing up as a shy, withdrawn, wheelchair-using child due to spina bifida, Amanda found her confidence and really came out of her shell, thanks to her time spent practicing sports and competing in track and field meets with the Rochester Rookies, a competitive sports team that allows athletes ages 6 to 22 a chance to compete in their favorite sports.
“Before the team, I really was shy and was afraid to do a lot of things because I just didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do,” said Amanda, 13, an eighth-grader and member of the Rookies since 2003.”This team has definitely helped my confidence and, like I wrote on that homework assignment, there’s nothing I can’t do. The Rookies showed me that anything is possible.”
When parents think about the future of their children, one of their biggest concerns usually concerns independence.
Parents ponder questions such as: How will their children do when taking on life’s obstacles on their own? Will they make the right choices when faced with a difficult decision?
The goal of parenting is to prepare children for the future, yet the issue of independence becomes more complicated for parents of children with disabilities, those who, through birth, accident or illness require the use of a wheelchair for mobility. These youths face additional challenges, such as learning how to get around school and how to deal with their peers, who, unlike them, don’t have to worry about the obstacles the wheelchair can present.
Understanding these issues, the Rookies provide an educational setting to learn about various sports, including basketball, swimming, archery, and track and field, while emphasizing that “can do” attitude.
“These children tend to come in with less self-confidence, and less independence than you usually see,” said coach Gregg Chalmers, of Churchville.
“This program tries to foster not only athletics and exercise, but we also ask parents to step back and not interfere as we foster an independent environment. You can really see the shy, unsure kids transform into confident young adults. They challenge their own abilities and end up recognizing the potential that they wouldn’t otherwise see or know they had.”
Any time a youth feels flustered and utters the words “I can’t do this,” Chalmers and his assistants will respond “yes, you can,” and, for the most part, the 14 members of the Rookies believe those sentiments.
“It’s very important for us kids to be able to go out and play sports, no matter what, whether we have a disability or not,” said Williamson’s Scott Niles, 8, a fourth-grader at Williamson Elementary and three-year member of the Rookies.
“Competing in track, doing the softball throw, the discus, javelin and shot put, makes me feel good, proud and happy when I’m out there. It’s a lot of fun competing and making new friends.”
Once a week, the team gathers at the State University College at Brockport for practice. During the 2009 National Junior Disability Championships, held July 25-Aug. 2 in St. Louis, the Rookies made history, placing third in the medium-sized team competition, the first time the squad had finished in the top three. Combined, the Rookies’ competitors won 25 gold medals and finished with 38 total medals at nationals.
“This team shows us how to advocate for ourselves,” said Pittsford’s Chase Marcott, 13, an eighth-grader at Calkins Road Middle School and eight-year member of the Rookies.
“We have to learn to act on our own and become independent, and learn to take care of ourselves without our parents’ help. This is amazing, having a group like this where we can make friends, compete and try to win.”
The athletes use modified, lighter aluminum wheelchairs in competitions and practices, as a third wheel rests in front of the wheelchair.
Athletes sit in a crouching position and use a compensator shaft on the front to steer the chair.
Chalmers, the coach for the past 15 years, said he hopes Buffalo and Syracuse will add competitive teams, to enable the Rookies to compete closer to home.
About the Rookies
The Rochester Rookies wheelchair sports team competes in various local and national competitions. The season is split from September through November, then again from January through July, when the annual national championships occur.
Aimed at athletes ages 6 to 22, the Rookies, sponsored by the Center for Disability Rights, practice once a week on Saturdays at the State University College at Brockport. For more information, or to register your child, call coach Gregg Chalmers, (585) 329-7484.