Y Program Pairs Wheelchair Users, Able-Bodied Athletes

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Naples Daily News (Florida)


Dan Solar spins himself around in his sports wheelchair on the gymnasium floor, displaying his athletic prowess without fanfare.

The 32-year-old slams his pickleball racquet against the plastic ball and sends it flying over the net to a doubles opponent - not in a wheelchair - who slams the ball right back.

"There's no mercy," Christopher Uzzi, the doubles opponent, said in jest during a recent game at the Greater Naples YMCA.

Both Solar and Uzzi, 69, a Vietnam War veteran, will take part in an adaptive sports program the YMCA is starting for wheelchair athletes and for veterans in wheelchairs or who are able-bodied.

Solar was a sports-minded kid in Cuba before he moved to the U.S. when he was 19.

Five years later, an autoimmune disorder attacked his body. Damage to his spinal cord robbed him of walking and nearly destroyed his dreams.

He struggled until he tried wheelchair sports, discovering his competitive spirit could thrive. It helped him find new purpose.

"I saw people doing body building in a wheelchair," Solar said. "I've seen people doing so many things."

He started with wheelchair fencing but it wasn't enough.

"I wanted to feel the heat and the sweat," he said.

He turned to wheelchair tennis and pickleball and hopes to compete someday, but for now, the YMCA is his stage.

"He's going to be a coach for us," Mindy Rashbaum, the adaptive sports coordinator, said.

The program will address sparse opportunities in the community for wheelchair athletes; the sole option is a wheelchair tennis program in Lee County, Rashbaum said.

The goal is to launch the program by the end of the first quarter, ideally with 15 to 25 athletes playing wheelchair tennis, pickleball and wiffle ball for two hours a week in each sport. The program will include "up/down" sports, where wheelchair athletes are teamed up with able-bodied veterans.

"There's really no difference because they have almost the same agility," Rashbaum said. "A wheelchair person and a standing person against another mixed team like that is just as competitive as all four standing people."

The program will be part of the YMCA's athletic offerings, but the plan is to pursue charitable donations and grants, said Sharon Genin, a pickleball player at the YMCA who is helping with the new program.

Organizations like the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and other philanthropic groups can be potential grant sources, Genin, 62, a retired financial professional, said. The cost to get the program off the ground is about $6,000, she said.

"It will have a significant impact on the quality of life for mobility challenged athletes," Genin said. "One of the benefits for the Y is there is nothing new that needs to be built or created."

Paul Thein, the YMCA president and executive director, said the center has an obligation to be accessible to all and help address what's missing in the community.

"In the area of adapted sports we see many gaps," Thein said in an email. "We won't be able to do it all and won't be able to do it all by ourself. We will however take the first step."

Working athletes - like Solar - will help the YMCA learn as the program progresses, Thein said.

"The good thing about YMCAs is we are a large worldwide organization so we are attempting to network with other Ys who have programs in adapted sports," Thein said.

Of 2,700 YMCAs across the county, 500 of them offer adaptive sports for youth, said Emily Waldren, spokeswoman for the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA. The organization doesn't track adaptive sports programs for adults.

Naples has helped spread the popularity of pickleball since it has been hosting the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in recent years and is now home to its affiliate, the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy.

A separate organization, the USA Pickleball Association, last year began supporting an initiative to organize para-pickleball for athletes who have permanent physical disabilities, said Adrienne Barlow, who has the business license for the venture. So far interest is centered in the Pacific Northwest (she's based near Seattle), but she's getting inquiries to start clubs in the East Coast.

A new start for Cuba native

Dan Solar thought life in a wheelchair was the end, but it turned out to be a new start.

In his native Cuba, Solar began playing tennis at age 6. He added karate and rowing in school. He learned English quickly after his family's move from Cuba to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2003. They moved to Fort Myers and he started college at the former Edison State College, now Florida SouthWestern State College.

Spare time was spent working out at a gym and playing racquetball. Life was good. The American Dream was in reach.

His world began to crumble when he became sick. He was 24.

"Then everything started going crazy in my life," he said. "I didn't know what to do, what to study."

His illness kindled interest in science, and he started taking science and health classes at Edison. Meanwhile, he traveled to specialists in Tampa and Miami, who were not sure whether he had multiple sclerosis or something else that attacked his system and damaged his spinal cord and brain.

"For a while I had to stop going to college because my condition got really bad," he said. "I started declining, from walking to using a cane, limping and using a cane, using a walker."

He took a year-long break from school in 2012. A YouTube commercial with an athlete in a wheelchair helped open his eyes. It was time to try a wheelchair.

"It was a very hard decision to make because the wheelchair, psychologically it affected me a lot," he said. "To me it was the end.

"It wasn't," he said. "It wasn't because the wheelchair gave me way more freedom. With the wheelchair I found all the things I could do. I could work out. I could really have a normal life."

He transferred his credits to Keiser University in Fort Myers and enrolled in sports medicine. He has a few more classes to go.

Last November, he was hired by the YMCA in customer service. He now is part of a team launching a wheelchair sports program at the Y.

His doctor said his condition is stable with no progressive deterioration. He was taken off all medications last year. Solar credits his dedication to sports.

"I feel way better," Solar said. "I have gained so much mobility."

For more information about the adaptive sports program, contact Rashbaum at 239-597-8431 or 239-206-0372; her email is [email protected] The YMCA website is www.greater- naplesymca.org.

January 15, 2017


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