The Stressful and Awesome Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp
Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, UCSB Department of Recreation and Vapur, July 22-26, 2013
Every summer, about 45 children and teens with disabling diseases, disorders and spinal cord injuries come from far and wide to the UCSB Recreation Center for a week of intense sporting organized by Santa Barbara Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital. They play basketball and volleyball, racquetball and rugby. They go swimming and handcycling, and have tennis lessons with three-time Paralympian, Anthony Lara. They also engage in adventure activities such as kayaking, ropes course, SCUBA and, of course, what kind of sports camp would be complete without rock climbing?
Real interest in adaptive climbing has been sparked among many wheelchair users across the globe. Perhaps it is the sport of rock climbing becoming more mainstream, or maybe inspiration from famous disabled athletes such as blind mountaineer, Erik Weihenmayer, incomplete tetraplegic competition climber, Fran Brown and the more recent scaling of El Capitan by Stephen Wampler, who has cerebral palsy. Either way, despite the growing interest, working with people with disabilities is still a very complex and out of the ordinary thing for most vertical sports professionals and high angle rope workers.
The Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp has both excited and panicked me for nearly a decade. Beyond the usual concerns that come with any children’s program, including the naturally worrisome parents and doting caretakers, each year purports a completely new test for me and my staff. The kids come to us both excited and terrified themselves, and we are responsible for the quality of their experience.
As vertical world risk managers, harnessing and handling these courageous 6 to 19 year-olds is some of the most challenging work we do. Helping them get to the top isn’t the hard part; we have strong arms and mechanical advantage to thank for that. It is more the meticulous setup and unconventional hard and soft skills that go with it.
We rely on camp staff and volunteers to ask the right questions and transfer the person when necessary for outfitting. Even in my 9th year, I still feel uncomfortable asking whether a camper can support him/herself while we slip the harness on. And while those aforementioned inspirational climbers have painstakingly whittled their systems down to a science, we are given but minutes to determine a specialized setup for each child.
“You’re pretty buff, right?” I ask a camper named Alex from one of the younger groups. This is my standard question for those with high functioning upper bodies. “Yesss!” he replied in a deep voice, flexing his biceps, fists clenched overhead with a bodybuilder grunt.
Alongside the lighthearted joking nature, this is actually useful information when determining how to connect campers into the system; the stronger their arm and trunk strength, the less intensive the harnessing. Able-bodied rock climbers take their basic abilities for granted, using core strength to stay upright during a fall.
Paraplegics and quadriplegics have decreased muscular tone in their lower extremities, contributing to a top heaviness that makes them very likely to flip over when they let go of the wall or are simply lifted from their wheelchair. A typical seat harness alone is not enough, warranting the integration of a chest or full body harness and even a head sling in extreme cases.
With safety as the overall goal, comfort and functionality is closely considered. One of the most difficult things to do is put yourself in their climbing shoes. We take precautions to keep body parts such as knees and elbows from dragging against the abrasive wall.
We also need to think about the less noticeable discomforts. It’s hard to imagine not being able to wiggle around in your harness or stand up on something when your feet start to tingle. Some of these campers wouldn’t even be able to feel the sensation of decreased blood flow to their limbs, which can be very dangerous! Prolonged suspension with limited mobility can lead to harness induced pathology, or orthostatic syndrome, which is a major concern.
Even with my (hopefully) silent and somewhat farfetched paranoia, I eagerly look forward to this camp every single year. It just so happens to be the most rewarding work we do. I usually finish the week with a sense of accomplishment, feeling like I did something important to better the lives of these children. For some, it is their first time ever doing anything like this.
“It’s really inspiring to see them do what they never thought they’d be able to,” said UCSB Climbing Center Supervisor, Danielle Broder. “A lot of the kids were really hesitant, so to see their faces light up when they did end up climbing and conquer their fears was really special.”
The smiles and lit up faces came early this year, as each camper was given their very own bright and shiny Vapur Anti-Bottle on the first day of camp. I was pleased to see the bottles clipped to the back of their wheelchairs and put at ease knowing they were staying hydrated, helping to prevent that dreaded harness pathology.
“Working the wheelchair sports camp was an incredible opportunity,” said Hayden Lord, a Climbing Center employee. “Seldom have I met more appreciative kids, or seen more genuine smiles.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
– Laura Bylund