Athletes with disabilities find Outdoor Adventures in Long Beach

Patrick Dwyer zips through the water on a modified jet ski.

Water skiers in wet suits wait on the sun-drenched dock at the Long Beach Rowing Center. Soon, boats will pull them along the gentle water passage that spills out to the jetty. The wooden dock at Marine Stadium, built for rowing events at the 1934 Olympics, was recently turned into one of two venues for the Land Meets Sea Sports Camp in Long Beach for the annual Outdoor Adventures program.

The program is run by the Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona, has provided thousands of people with a range of disabilities from quadriplegia to spina bifida the chance to experience firsthand a cornucopia of water, land, recreational, and competitive sports.

Professionals, coaches and athletes have for 26 years instructed both beginners and experienced athletes to reach their personal best at their favorite activity. Participants can take their pick from a cornucopia of adaptive sports for people with mobility challenges: basketball, water skiing, sailing, hot air balloon rides, outrigger canoeing, deep sea fishing, hand cycling, hockey, tennis, power soccer, kayaking, football, jet-skiing, scuba and softball. UCLA Recreation’s Adaptive Program helps run the camp and do informal assessments of a campers’ abilities.

The 2008 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults with Disabilities recommends that people, who are able to, should get “at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.” They also recommend muscle-strengthening activities “of moderate or high intensity” that involve all major muscle groups at least twice a week.

Exercise has tremendous benefits for everyone. Studies show that physical activity and exercise increased cardiac and pulmonary function, protect against the development of chronic diseases, foster weight control and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. For people with physical disabilities, who tend to be more sedentary, these activities can be especially therapeutic as they foster motor coordination, build strength, cardiovascular fitness.

The mental health benefits can be just as significant as toned muscles. People have decreased anxiety and depression when they stay healthier. Data collected so far by the Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation on the Outdoor Adventures program shows that over nine months, participants showed measurable improvements in their cognitive abilities and confidence. Their self-esteem is hugely boosted, said Johnson, so the overall long-term benefit is both physical and emotional.

“They recognize that exercise is core to staying healthy,” said Anne Johnson, Founder and Director of the Outdoor Adventures Program and a therapeutic recreation specialist. “For everybody that comes to camp, it’s not necessarily the activity itself, but the chance to be in an environment that promotes health and fitness and camaraderie.”

Some people, like Patrick Dwyer, are devoted to it. The 41-year-old with a developmental disability has been a camper since he was 21.

“He loves it and looks forward to it every year,” said Jill Dwyer, Patrick’s mother. “He has made a lot of friends and so he feels comfortable here.”

The thrill of water skiing is another draw. With the help of several experts from United States Adaptive Recreation Center (USARC), Patrick slips into a modified water ski equipped with a seat and removable outriggers that act like training wheels. USARC runs a full-time on-site adaptive ski school in Southern California at Bear Mountain Resort in addition to an adaptive water sports program. Once Patrick, wearing goggles and a wetsuit, is lowered gently into the water, several swimmers put him in position and attach him to the line. The jet ski operator revs the engine and within seconds Patrick is zipping across the water with two rescue boats in his wake. He can signal using hand gestures for the boat to slow down or stop.

Wrapped in a towel and shivering on the dock, 21-year-old Sarah Howry just finished her water skiing round and wants to head right back in. Howry was born with spastic Cerebral Palsy and her muscles are constantly cramping. She uses a walker to get around when she’s not in her wheelchair and describes her disability as “running 100 percent of the time and never being able to take a chill pill.” She says she’s the loudest screamer on the water of all her fellow campers. “This is a week of the most pain anyone will ever experience, but in the best way possible,” said the college senior and nine year veteran of Outdoor Adventures. “This is the best camp ever.”

Across the water on the “land” side of the Land and Sea Camp, there’s a parking lot with tents, a gathering spot for a range of activities from hand cycling, hockey, soccer, softball, fencing and wellness activities.

Under a white tent in the hot sun, half a dozen campers in wheelchairs pull exercise bands connected to overhead poles. Dozens of adapted hand cycles in all sizes cluster on the asphalt.

One of the hand cycling instructors is Alvin Malave, part of UCLA’s adaptive recreation program. Alvin is trying to be a Para Olympian and has been told he has a good shot. In March, he won the Los Angeles Marathon, finishing in an hour and a half in a hand cycle. He built a custom racing cycle optimized for speed and has been clocked in at 50 miles an hour. “I have breaks but I don’t really use them,” he said, smiling.

“This has helped me on so many levels… physical strength translates into independence on a daily basis, to feeling confident about myself and socially accepting my situation,” said Malave, who was struck by a car when he was walking 9 years ago.

Andrew Skinner, just returning from a hand cycling ride, agrees that exercise is the best medicine. The 30-year-old Santa Clarita man was playing in the snow at his parent’s cabin 7 years ago when he fell down, broke his neck, and become suddenly paralyzed.

A few years ago, he started the Triumph Foundation, which helps people with spinal cord injuries deal with the obstacles they face from accessibility issues at home like ramps and doorways to financial constraints. “It’s a lot of fun to pay it forward,” said Andrew. “No one ever plans ahead for something like this or dreams it could happen to them.”

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