This Hockey Team For Disabled Kids Is The Coolest One Around

When Isaiah Granet was 12, he started a hockey team for kids with developmental disabilities. 6 years later, the San Diego Chill is still going strong.

Isaiah Granet has always loved hockey. The team environment, the competitiveness, the creativity of the game. He believes everyone should have the opportunity to play. Unfortunately, few hockey programs for children with disabilities exist.

That’s why six years ago, he started San Diego Chill, a nonprofit that teaches children with developmental disabilities how to skate and play ice hockey.

He did so after meeting Adam, a young hockey fan with Down Syndrome. Adam wanted to play, but couldn’t because no teams allowed children with developmental disabilities. “Seeing the pure love that Adam had for ice hockey, reminded me of the same passion I feel for the game,” Granet says. “Given that connection, I knew I couldn’t sit by and watch hockey stay out of reach for him.”

The most amazing thing? Granet did this when he was 12. He’s 18 now.

Folks spoke to Granet about his love for the game, how he started San Diego Chill, and how kids benefit.

Isaiah Granet with a member of the San Diego Chill.

How did San Diego Chill start?

I approached the local rink owner about starting a pilot program for a special needs hockey team. The owner offered us free ice time. Hockey equipment, however, is expensive. I contacted law firms to ask for donations. It was one of the most daunting tasks I faced. Being only 12, I thought I would be laughed at, and truthfully I was. Out of the dozens of emails and calls, one law firm took me seriously. Paul Hastings LLP not only helped me set up the team, they did it pro bono. Receiving help from such a large law firm was incredibly empowering and gave me the confidence to move forward. Without the generosity of Paul Hastings and the wonderful lawyers that we have worked with, namely Terry O’Brian, the Chill would not exist today.

How expensive is it to play hockey?

On average, it costs between $200 and $300 to equip each player. We don’t charge for equipment. Each player receives a brand new helmet to ensure absolute safety on the ice. While we do receive some equipment donations, we usually have to fundraise. No player will ever see a bill for their equipment; there are no barriers for anybody who wants to learn to play.

No player will ever see a bill for their equipment; there are no barriers for anybody who wants to learn to play.

How do you fundraise?

We’ve received several grants that have helped offset the costs of the program, and we mostly rely on the generosity of the community. People across San Diego and across the country, have stepped up to help support this program. That said, raising the funds each season is our biggest worry. We’ve raised more than $130,000 since starting The Chill. I’m also a recipient of the Baron Prize, which awards grants to students who make positive impacts in their communities.

Who plays and who coaches?

It’s open to children ages 7 to 13. Each Sunday during the school year, we have up to 40 players and 50 mentor coaches. Most of our volunteer coaches come once and become hooked. They fall in love with the team and bond with the players. Nearly all of our coaches are teenagers, aged 13-18. They willingly and enthusiastically give up part of their Sunday to help give back to their community. It’s truly amazing to see the connections and bonds that grow from player-coach relationships. It’s life changing on both ends.

As time goes on every coach gets to see the development of the player they have been working with for years, and the impact their commitment has made. We have also started an education program for the coaches, inviting doctors, parents, and specialists to come speak and educate the coaches on developmental disabilities.

How has San Diego Chill helped the players?

There are many stories from the players whose parents never thought they would walk let alone skate to the players who have met their best friends on the team. Another story happened after practice. The coaches usually go out for lunch together. One coach invited a player who was 13. We were 14 and 15 at the time.

Later that day, I received a call from his mom in tears telling me that her son had come home and told her that it was the “best day ever.” Just being able to enjoy lunch with kids close in age was enough to bring him and his mother to tears. It was an hour of our time that didn’t seem remarkable to us, but to this player it was enough for him to call it the “best day ever.”

Isaiah Granet and the players of San Diego Chill.

And about once or twice a year, we do an event night with the San Diego Gulls. We usually are able to offer free tickets or extremely discounted prices to families. These nights are about building a community through the team, encouraging the formation of relationships among parents and players outside of hockey. After one of these nights I had a parent come up to me and thank me for a wonderful night, saying that his family had loved being able to go to a pro sporting event. They, as a family, had never been able to attend any other sporting event before. To be able to go out and enjoy a night like a typical family meant the world to their entire family. There are so many things that we all take for granted, and seeing how impactful small events like these can be never fails to surprise me.

There are so many things that we all take for granted, and seeing how impactful small events like these can be never fails to surprise me.

What are your plans going forward?

I’m currently attending Washington University in St. Louis. While, I’m still very much involved with the team, I’ve expanded The Chill’s board, and delegated roles to other volunteers. We are currently working on a long term plan for The Chill to ensure its continued growth and existence.

And for the Chill to continue functioning we always need support from the community. There is no shortage of ways to contribute; hockey abilities are not a prerequisite!

Disability Health & Fitness

The Aztec Warriors of Amputee Soccer

This up-and-coming team of soccer superstars is showing that you can still bend it like Beckham when you're disabled.

Julian Luna still remembers the day a neighbor told him about an amputee soccer team in Mexico City called the Guerreros Aztecas and asked him if he´d be interested in coming to practice.

Luna, who lost his leg due to a soccer-related injury in his home country of Colombia, had a somewhat predictable answer.

“It was eternal waiting for the day that I could go back to playing,” says Luna, who is now a forward for Guerreros Aztecas, a soccer team that forms part of the Amputee Football Association of Mexico.

Amputee soccer was first played competitively in the U.S. in the 1980s and later adopted by countries around the world, including Mexico.

Team photo of the Guerreros Aztecas.

The rules, which closely resemble those of the standard game, have a few key differences: Outfielders can have two hands but only one foot, while goalies can have two legs but only one hand. According to the World Amputee Football Federation, metal crutches are also not allowed to be used to advance or direct the ball.

The rules dictate play around the world, and n the Mexico league, which is comprised of roughly 200 players and 13 teams— including the Guerreros Aztecas.

Omar Espinosa saw a local newscast about the team after it was founded in 2013 and wanted to help. Espinosa and his brother, Carlos, eventually found themselves volunteering as the goalkeeper and midfield coaches, and have since recruited players and designed drills for the team by watching videos on YouTube. One of the key things they train new players to do is gain the confidence to sprint across a field on their crutches. 

“It´s about overcoming your fear,” Espinosa explains.

Thanks largely to efforts like theirs, there are now 17 players on the team up from six only four years ago. And the Aztecas are getting better. When the team played their first match against a northern Mexico-based team known as Tigres, they lost in a 10-0 blowout. This season, the Guerreros Aztecas finished third in final standings, losing just 2-0 to the Tigres in the semifinal match.

“We want to be champions,” says Espinosa.

“We want to be champions.”

The team’s standings have put it in a strong position for the Amputee Football World Cup qualification round in March, when up to four players from each Mexican team will be chosen to form the national selection that competes in Jalisco, Mexico in August 2018.

An estimated 28 teams from around the world are expected to participate in the tournament, up from about 20 when the last World Cup was held in 2014.

At a recent practice, the Guerreros Aztecas prepared for the qualification round with aerobics, drills, and a 12-man scrimmage. Dressed in multi-colored jerseys, they fanned across the field, raising themselves up0n their crutches before flinging themselves counter-gravitationally into the air to kick the ball.

One player received a pass with his chest and stumbled backward from the ball’s force. Then, he found his balance and continued running on the pitch.

Victor Hugo, a defensive player who was one of the two Guerrero Azteca players chosen to be part of Mexico´s World Cup team in 2014, gulped down water in between a play.

“Coming here after an amputation is like being able to live again,” he says, wearing a pink jersey with a large number “2” on the back.

The players on Guerreros Aztecas all have their own stories. One player known as Toro had an amputation after he was thrown off a bull and was gored by its horn. Then there’s Rey David Angeles, the goalie, who liked to give his cat leftovers from his uncle’s butcher shop and had his arm amputated after it got caught in the meat slicer.

But what ultimately unites them all isn’t the fact that they are missing limbs. It’s their love of the game.

“I like soccer. I like to watch it, play it. It’s not just my passion, it calms me,” says Hugo, who earns his living by performing soccer tricks at traffic intersections in Mexico City during the day.

“A lot of people who join the team say, ‘I played for years, but even though this happened to me, I want to keep playing,” says Espinosa.

The Guerreros’ biggest difficulties, Espinosa explains, are those common to many sports teams: gathering finances and finding fields.

The rules of amputee soccer say that you can’t use your crutches to hit the ball.

For now, local congressman Raul Flores has helped sponsor the team, while others have loaned it fields to practice on and even donated uniforms..

As for Espinosa, the Guerreros Aztecas are a passion project for him. 

“Finding this team has been a lesson about life,” he said. “Disability is all in your mind.” 

Health & Fitness Rare Diseases

From Bone Disorder To NFL Bone Crusher

As a child, former Dallas Cowboy Montrae Holland suffered silently with Blount's Disease for years, all for his love of the game.

Montrae Holland, standing over 6-foot-1 and weighing more than 300 pounds, is a big and gentle guy who has a special heart for children. The father of six also spends time mentoring youth and encouraging them to attack their goals no matter what obstacle stands in the way.

Montrae Holland.

The 36-year-old knows a little something about reaching for dreams even when those dreams seem elusive. When Montrae was 11 years old, he was diagnosed with Blount’s disease, a growth disorder that left him wrestling with pain, and threatened to halt his ambition of becoming a professional athlete.

The disorder causes the tibia, or shin bone, to angle inward and twist. Meanwhile, the thigh bone continues to grow outward, making the leg bow.

Fortunately, Montrae overcame the effects of that disorder, and now pays forward the wisdom he gained during a trying time. The retired National Football League lineman reaches out to young athletes at schools, events and non-profit organizations.

“I try to give back anyway I can through my experiences to help these kids,” he said. “I know they need that kind of encouragement.”

Born To Play Football

In Texas, football is king. In Ore City, a sleepy town not far from the Texas-Louisiana border, there weren’t a lot of opportunities or resources to help find those opportunities elsewhere. Some youth hung their hopes on playing professional sports. And in the Holland household, Montrae was no exception.

His father, Milton Holland, played football in high school and then joined a semi-professional team. His love of the game–and the cloak of his machismo–made it difficult for those around Montrae to recognize the severity of his leg pain.

The senior Holland said initially, he thought his son could shake it off.

“You know how it is,” Milton recalled. “We always wanted to push him. The first thing I said was, ‘boy you just got to get up and do what you have to do.'”

His love of the game–and the cloak of his machismo–made it difficult for those around Montrae to recognize the severity of his leg pain.

The pain in Montrae’s leg didn’t come out of nowhere. It was gradual, and ultimately, excruciating.

Montrae, also affectionately known as ‘Lil’ Milton,’ wanted to please his dad and tried hard to remain tough–until he couldn’t. One day, the seventh grader couldn’t stand it. In the off season, he stopped in his tracks while running sprints.

Montra Holland in his first uniform.

“It was hurting so bad and I stopped and just started crying,” he said. “At first the whole football attitude was ‘stop being soft.’ A lot of people didn’t realize I was in so much pain.”

That was, until a coach pulled Montrae out of a game. The coach urged the Hollands to get his leg checked out. It was that serious.

The only thing that seemed to help Montrae’s pain was having his mother rub liniment on his aching limb.

“He began to cry a lot,” his mother, Tonette Holland said. “I would rub and massage him … It was very touching.”

After seeing a doctor in a nearby town, the Hollands were referred to a specialist in Dallas. At some point, cancer was mentioned as a possibility, Montrae recalls.

“I saw the reaction to ‘this could be cancer.’ (My dad) apologized at that time. He broke down. My mom and dad and everybody broke down.”

If caught early, braces can correct Blount’s disease. At 12 years old, Montrae required radical surgery at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. His lower right leg was broken, reset and a plate and nine screws were added. The growth plates were fused on both legs to cease growth. Thankfully, the seventh-grader was already at a grown man’s size.

Now with an accurate diagnosis, Montrae began a long and daunting journey.

A Faith Walker

The isolating recovery lasted about 13 months, with seven months in a wheelchair, and three months on crutches. He channeled his energy into fighting his way back to the football field.

Montrae was homeschooled during that time, so he was disappointed to be separated from classmates. Nonetheless, there were glimmers of hope and happiness.

A group of friends would visit his family’s three-bedroom singlewide mobile home nestled alongside a farm-to-market road in rural East Texas to play sports in the Holland’s yard. The immobile Montrae watched from a window. But it didn’t trouble him. Instead, he was motivated that he’d join them one day.

What Blount’s Disease looks like on an X-Ray. The disorder causes the tibia, or shin bone, to angle inward and twist

Reliving that scenario makes him swell with emotion, though.

“That kept me up,” he said, fighting tears. “That’s the time I made up my mind not to take anything for granted. I made a promise to myself at that time. There was no way I couldn’t get back. When released, I was going to hit the ground running. It was motivating.”

Once, his coach loaded his teammates from an athletic period on two buses and came to the house. One by one, they trickled in the small home, some waiting outside for their turn as they encouraged the sidelined athlete.

The first time Montrae tested the efficiency of his “new” legs post-surgery, he was horse playing with a friend. After a rock he’d thrown hit a car windshield, he took off running, passing his buddy.

“When (my legs) healed , it was like a brand new set of tires. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s on now.'”

“When (my legs) healed , it was like a brand new set of tires. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s on now.'”

Montrae was just happy to be running and playing again. He didn’t forget what he went through. He was enjoying life without pain. It was a new beginning.

“Looking back, what I always had was a vision; doing what I always said I was going to do, even when the doctor was like, ‘hey, I can’t promise you football. I really don’t want you to play.'”

His parents let him make the decision on whether he wanted to play again. They were proud of their son’s dedication.

“I saw him hit the football field again, the way his movement was, his range when making tackles, and we felt pretty good about it,” Milton said.

By the end of his ninth grade year, Montrae transferred to another school, Jefferson High School, where there was a better opportunity to be noticed by scouts. From a debilitating disorder to Florida State University, Holland’s hard work paid off.

“He’s a determined person,” Tonette said. “I call him a faith walker.”

A Dream Career

During his career as an offensive lineman, Montrae was the “short wide guy.”

“I caught so much from other college players, especially,” he said.

But his stature gave him leverage and he could easily “get under folks,” making him a dominant force in both college and in the NFL. Montrae played nine seasons, including four with the New Orleans Saints, one with the Denver Broncos, and finally, his last four with Dallas Cowboys–a team he grew up rooting for.

Early in his career, he didn’t speak publicly about what he experienced in middle school. He didn’t want to use it as a tool for sympathy or special treatment.


“I never wanted nobody to use it as a charity or pity,” he said. “To me, it was like looking in the rearview mirror.”

But in an NFL combine, coaches learned about his medical history, which earned him a red flag. His value as an potential NFL player decreased. Fortunately, his former Florida State University trainer was working with the Saints, and he nudged the head coach to draft Holland.

“I say God placed him right there,” Holland said of the trainer.

Helping Others Through Their Pain

After the NFL, Montrae worked for Nike, going around the country to coach high school age athletes. Along the way, he kept in touch with these kids.

He especially had a soft spot for athletes dealing with Blount’s disease. He’d encourage them on their journey and empathize with those who may not be able to live out their dreams.

“A lot of them are depressed,” he said. “With that type of depression, you have to start thinking about another way. That’s why I try to share with these kids.”

As a father of children ranging in ages 4 through 12, his experience has given him new perspectives on parenting and how to truly appreciate life. He’s encouraging them, but is mindful not to be overbearing when it comes to sports. He said it’s important to listen, instill in them the value of hard work, then step back.

“I actually try to lay it out for them and say ‘this is want you have to do, but this is your journey’ … The secret to being great at anything is putting time into it. That’s it. Go to work. Put time in and have a vision and just work toward it.”

Today, Montrae’s body has some wears and tears, mostly from the grueling years in the NFL, but he’s happy and healthy. Most people don’t even notice his limp.

He wants to continue speaking out about Blount’s disease, and advocating to student athletes about having options outside of sports.

“As a young man he has compassion for other people,” his mother said. “He has a heart for everybody.”

Montrae had always been optimistic, but even at a young age, he was able to handle the setbacks well. He wants others–particularly student athletes trying to find their way in the world–to be resistant to apathy, and resilient in the face of life’s unexpected turns.

“Don’t overreact if something is not going with what is planned,” he insists. “You deal with life and find the good in it.”

Disability Health & Fitness


Amputee soccer player, Powerade spokesmodel, and mountain climber, it's as a teacher that Nico Calabria thinks he can really make his mark.

It was the greatest goal of his life.

Sailing into the box from the left corner of the field, the box flew over the heads of a series of defenders. Nico Calabria, a high school senior at the time, readied himself. He had shaken off his defender, carving out some space in the crowded penalty area. Launching himself into the air, he acrobatically connected with the ball, sending a powerful shot off his left boot into the back of the net.

The goal, scored in the fall of 2012, was instrumental in giving Massachusetts’ Concord-Carlisle High School Varsity Soccer Team the win over a fierce rival. Calabria’s technique would not have looked out of place in the English Premier League, the best soccer league in the world. In fact, a clip of the goal would be loaded up to YouTube, where it would become an overnight sensation, eventually garnering over 1.8 million views.

It would be a special moment for any player. The thing is, Calabria scored the goal on crutches. He’s only got one leg: his left one. Born with a congenital limb deficiency, he’s missing his right leg and the right side of his hip, for reasons even his doctors don’t fully understand But only having one leg hasn’t stopped Calabria from competing in sports. He’s scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, starred in a PowerAde commercial, and competed in soccer internationally.

Calabria kicks. Photo: Carl Calabria

Calabria, 22, currently attends Colorado College where he’s an education major. This summer he captained the United States Amputee national soccer team (the team lost a tournament to Haiti’s national amputee team at the end of July). And thanks to his parents, Carl and Jeanine, he’s never let a silly thing like a leg get in his way.

“The mentality that they raised me with from day one was: we need to treat Nico as if he’s a regular kid,” Calabria says. “I think that mentality is very much just who I am. I’m driven, confident and willing to fail. My life would just suck if I didn’t have that mentality.”

“The mentality my parents raised me with from day one was: we need to treat Nico as if he’s a regular kid.My life would just suck if I didn’t have that mentality.”

Calabria played varsity high school soccer on crutches with able-bodied players. The crutches didn’t allow him to dribble much, but he shot and passed just like everyone else. Although he was always one of the slowest players on the field, he could move surprisingly quick on the crutches. He’s always been passionate about soccer. When he was just three years old, he would kick around the ball, hopping around on his prosthetic leg.

“It’s just a great game,” Calabria said. “It’s the beautiful game, the ultimate sport.”

He also loves soccer for the way it hammers through barriers. For many people, interacting with a person with a disability can be initially awkward. Calabria’s found athletic activities to be a way to blast away that awkwardness like a blow torch.

“When I played an away game and the other team saw me for the first time get off the bus, they’re just like ‘what’s going on?’ and, ‘let’s make sure no one hurts him,’” Calabria says. “But right when the whistle blows and I get the ball and they realize I have game, they realize we’re on an equal playing field.”

Calabria refuses to let his peers outdo him. Photo: Carl Calabria

Calabria lives a full life off the field, as well. He likes to DJ and takes jazz piano lessons. He also plays volleyball, dives, and has taught gymnastics.

The outdoors are one of his passions, and he tries to escape outside at any opportunity he gets. What he likes most is hiking and camping with friends in the Rocky Mountains.

“It (camping) gives you a chance to talk with friends about things that matter to you instead of going to a large house party where talk can be superficial. Being outdoors just feels a lot more authentic to me.”

“When the whistle blows and I get the ball and they realize I have game, they realize we’re on an equal playing field.”

He’s seen patterns emerge in social interactions. “Some people will just get it right in the open, saying ‘what happened to your leg?’” he said.  But he has friends he’s known for years who have never mentioned it.

He doesn’t like people treating him any different than an able-bodied person. “It’s pretty frustrating,” Calabria said. “People have a tendency to give me too much space. I understand it comes from a place of compassion, but I’m not asking for it.”

At Colorado College, he’s an education major. His immediate goal it to teach high school social studies. His long term goal is to work on educational policy.

“Education is a noble profession,” Calabria said. “It makes me proud to say ‘I’m going to be a teacher.’”

Nico on the field. Photo: Carl Calabria

The PowerAde commercial, which hit TV screens in April 2014, was part of an advertising campaign the sports drink company launched in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, featuring people who’ve overcome adversity to play soccer. The commercial shows snippets of home videos of Calabria from when he was learning to walk, to standing using a prosthetic leg, to running down the field using crutches (he jettisoned the prosthetic leg to help him move easier).

It also shows his grit. When a voice off camera asks him how he’s going to spend the day, a very young Calabria simply responds, “uh, play.” After he’s knocked over as he tussles for the ball in a soccer game, he pops right back up and keeps playing, never complaining to the referee or looking toward any parents standing on the sideline.

Although Calabria’s fast on crutches, he’s always been the slowest player when playing with two-legged people. His strengths are his passing skills and his awareness and vision on the field to distribute the ball.

“Education is a noble profession… It makes me proud to say ‘I’m going to be a teacher.’”

And that’s precisely what he does as a midfielder for the U.S. Amputee National Soccer Team. He joined the team three years ago and is now its captain.

Amputee soccer is played on a smaller field than soccer for able-bodied players. The teams field seven players, instead of the 11 that are fielded in able-bodied soccer. Goalkeepers must have only one functioning arm, and all other players must have only one functioning leg. There is no offsides rule, and using a crutch as a weapon leads to an automatic ejection.

The pace of amputee soccer is slower than a game with able-bodied players. But the games have more action. There are a lot more shots on goals. The players quickly advance the ball up the field, rather than try intricate short-passing movements. The play is also surprisingly physical. Players are not afraid to clatter into each other as they challenge for the ball.

When he’s not playing sports, Nico aims to inspire an entire new generation of kids as a teacher. Photo: Carl Calabria

“There are half as many legs on the field, so yeah, it goes slower,” Nico said.

The first Amputee World Cup was held in 1984. The tournament has been held every two years since 2010. England is the current champion. Russia, Angola, Poland, and Turkey also field strong sides.  Although the U.S. isn’t yet a favorite to win the tournament, the team has made rapid progress in the last few years. It advanced out of the opening stage for the first time in 2014 at the World Cup, held in Culiacan, Mexico.

“It was a big step,” Calabria said, “we started to be seen as a threat, where we were never contenders before.”

In most countries, the options for people with a missing limb are much more limited, Calabria explained, so a lot more people are funneled into amputee soccer. The plethora of sports options in the U.S. actually winds up putting the U.S. team at a disadvantage competitively.

Calabria wants to see the U.S. amputee soccer team grow and compete for the gold medal. One of his goals in the years to come it to set up a network of regional amputee soccer teams within the country. The teams would compete against each other. This, he thinks, would help foster amputee soccer in the U.S., and the competition would produce better players.

Perhaps most of all, he wants to develop a public speaking career on top of teaching. His message is that people need to live their lives to the fullest, despite whatever challenges they face.

“People often times blow challenges out of proportion and box themselves into a space where they think everything is against them,” he said. “Not to say that other people’s challenges aren’t significant or even harder than mine, but I hope people stop feeling like they’re the victim of life. You make yourself the victim.”

Disability Health & Fitness

Rims and Hoops in Afghanistan

After he was paralyzed at 19, Jess Markt made it his mission to teach wheelchair basketball to young men in some of the most war-ravaged nations on the planet.

When people picture the country of South Sudan in northeastern Africa, they typically envision a country devastated by famine and the ravages of war. Yet in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the focus is on camaraderie rather than conflict, as a group of local men gather to learn the fundamentals of wheelchair basketball. Some are war veterans who lost their legs to land mines; others were born with birth defects or suffered paralysis as the result of polio. Almost all are participating in organized sports for the first time.

At the center of the court sits Jess Markt, a 40-year-old paraplegic with a contagious smile and incredible passing skills. Markt, who is employed as a consultant with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has traveled from Boulder, Colorado to Juba to teach a two-week session on wheelchair basketball. For the past seven years, Markt has trained wheelchair basketball teams in Afghanistan, India, Palestine and Cambodia, and in his home state of Colorado.

Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability…

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” says Markt who became paralyzed at the age of 19 after severing his spinal cord in a car accident. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Historically, disabled people in third-world countries such as South Sudan are often looked upon as social outcasts. They often languish without access to proper medical care and rehabilitation, becoming depressed and isolated. The ICRC’s goal is to change that perception by promoting social inclusion for those with disabilities.

“Many of these players have never been given the opportunity to play a sport before,” Markt says. “They have been kept at home, with no active expectations they would somehow contribute to society. Learning wheelchair basketball gives these players confidence, and helps them realize they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Inspiring Through Example

A lifelong athlete, Markt was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Oregon, when a tragic car accident in 1996 severed his spine and left him paralyzed. Waking up in the hospital, two weeks after the accident, he was told he would never walk again. Although it was a bitter pill for the competitive track star to swallow, Markt drew strength from his parents, three brothers, and friends who offered him unconditional support.

“I quickly realized I could either view myself as a victim or get to work reconstructing my life,” Markt says.

I quickly realized I could either view myself as a victim or get to work reconstructing my life…

After undergoing rehabilitation, Markt returned to the University of Oregon to complete his bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in Japanese. His father worked with members of Markt’s fraternity to make the frat house where Markt lived wheelchair-accessible. Thrilled to return to campus and resume his studies, Markt continued to miss the rush of playing competitive sports.

Jess Markt hard at work coaching.

His second chance at basketball came when the Wheel Blazers, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) franchise, sponsored by the NBA’s professional basketball team, the Trail Blazers, invited Markt to join their team three year after his accident.

“Playing basketball again felt like the completion of my rehabilitation,” says Markt who had been active in the sport since the age of 8.

It didn’t take long for Markt to learn that wheelchair basketball was every bit as physical as conventional basketball, and that dribbling a ball while maneuvering a wheelchair, required many hours of practice. In addition to mastering new skills, Markt learned to navigate a sports wheelchair, a model with wheels that are slanted outward, creating a wider more stable base at ground level.

“It took me almost two years to reach the skill equivalent I’d achieved playing standup ball,” says Markt.

From Player to Coach

In 2009, while working as a communications consultant in New York City, and playing wheelchair basketball for the Knicks’ affiliate NWBA team, Markt answered an open call for an experienced American wheelchair basketball coach who could travel to Afghanistan to teach the sport to locals with disabilities.

Intrigued, Markt agreed to travel to Afghanistan for a week to coach wheelchair basketball for disabled players between the ages of 15-45. He held a fundraiser to cover his travel costs and then left to spend a week in Kabul.

“Although I had played wheelchair basketball for nine years, I had never coached before,” Markt says. “Yet the opportunity to travel abroad and train disabled athletes who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in rehabilitative sports, was something I felt really good about doing.”

Eight years after the war began, 2009 was the deadliest year for U.S. service members fighting in Afghanistan. Although Markt was nervous about traveling to a war-torn region, he was also intrigued by the challenge of helping others to pass up the opportunity.

“Being disabled in Afghanistan often means being very marginalized,” Markt says. “Playing sports was never an option for these men and women.”

Being disabled in Afghanistan often means being very marginalized…

Despite initially encountering language barriers, and coaching players who had never before participated in organized sports, Markt soon found that wheelchair basketball not only provided men and women in Kabul with a fun form of rehabilitation, it also gave them the confidence they needed to achieve other life goals.

“Since this program started, many of the players have gotten jobs, and some have even started a small business of their own,” Markt says.

Afghanistan Team in Japan, 2015

After returning to Afghanistan in 2011, Markt accepted a consulting position with the ICRC that same year. Thanks to the ICRC’s efforts, hundreds of disabled players now play wheelchair basketball, with the best of them playing in a national league, and eyeing up the chance to maybe compete one day in the Paralympics.

Given the challenges the disabled Afghans face on a daily basis, including living in a town with few paved roads, and where no Afghan homes have running water, Markt naively assumed they would be an introverted group. He quickly realized his assumptions were wrong.

“They laugh, joke, and talk trash like any other group of athletes might in America,” Markt says.

They laugh, joke, and talk trash like any other group of athletes might in America…

Although most of the players Markt trains are men, he has also trained women in the sport of wheelchair basketball. For the past two years, he has traveled to the Gaza Strip, a small Palestinian territory, that has been at the center of perpetual conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants. In 2015, Markt traveled to Gaza to train local referees and coaches. A year later, he returned to train players and organize tournaments between wheelchair basketball teams.

In a conservative society such as Gaza, playing organized sports is not conventional for women. Markt teaches the women the rules of the game and demonstrates different techniques. He shows them how to share the ball and to work together as a team.

“Being able to travel and serve as a coach is endlessly rewarding and inspiring,” says Markt who also serves as a player and coach on the NWBA team, the Denver Rolling Nuggets.

In the future, Markt says the ICRC hopes to expand wheelchair basketball to more countries and to also offer training in other adaptive sports such as cricket and table tennis.

“I started my work with the ICRC with the intention of helping others who had suffered disabilities,” Markt says. “I’ve come to realize the benefits go far beyond improving the health of the players, learning the sport has also given them a new outlook on life.”

Diabetes Histories

The Diabetic On Third Base

Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo knew he was a great ballplayer, but when it came to his diabetes, he didn't think he was extraordinary.

On a hot August afternoon in 1967, Chicago Cubs player Ron Santo walked up to the plate at Wrigley Field and saw three Bill Singers, a pitcher with a fierce fastball, staring back at him. Santo had Type 1 diabetes, and his blood-glucose level had dropped suddenly. Now the world was in triplicate.

It was the bottom of the ninth, and the bases were loaded. The Cubs trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0, and 20,000 fans were cheering for a hit. Santo looked at the trio of Singers and focused on the middle one. The first pitch blazed toward him “looking like it was attached to a Slinky,” Santo recalled in a 2003 essay in Guideposts.

He swung.

The ball soared out of the park, becoming one of his six career grand slams.

The stadium erupted over the dramatic win. Billy Williams, one of the players on base, began to jog toward home at a celebratory pace. Desperate to reach the dugout, Santo began shouting at Williams to “get goin’!”

Once off the field, he downed orange juice and ate three candy bars. “Then I went into the clubhouse, and my teammates and the reporters were waiting for me and I could barely talk — your brain quits working,” Santo said in a profile in the Chicago Reader in 2000.

Remarkably, this was one of the only times Santo had a diabetic reaction on the field.

In his rookie year, Santo kept his diabetes secret from his teammates.

In his rookie year, Santo kept his diabetes secret from his teammates.

When Santo’s doctor diagnosed him with diabetes in 1959, he was 18 and had just signed a pro contract. His one concern: Can I still play baseball? His doctor wasn’t convinced he’d make it through his first season in the minor leagues, let alone the majors.

After receiving this prognosis, Santo walked to the library for the first time since grade school and read up on the disease. What he discovered was far from reassuring. In Type 1 diabetes, known then as juvenile diabetes, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that signals cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream for energy. Without it, excess amounts of sugar accumulate and cause vascular abnormalities and nerve damage, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure, hardening of the arteries, gangrene, and limb amputations.

He also read that the average life expectancy at the time was 25 years after onset, and he couldn’t find any reports of other diabetic athletes. “At that point, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to fight this thing and beat it.’ That’s how badly I wanted to live and be a big league ballplayer,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1990. He headed to training, determined to keep his sugars down through diet and exercise — and his diabetes a secret.

Santo was a tough player and an eternal optimist — a combo that made him a perfect Cub, a team who hadn’t won the World Series since 1908. In the middle of his second season in the minors, Santo got the call up to the majors and walked out onto Wrigley Field as the Cub’s new third baseman. “I felt like I was walking on air,” said Santo. “There was an electricity and an atmosphere that I’d never experienced in my life.”

In the winter of 1961, Santo lost 22 pounds in three weeks, had to urinate constantly, and felt terrible pain in his right leg. A doctor told him that if he didn’t start taking insulin, he could lose the leg. Within three weeks of starting insulin injections, his strength began to return and he regained 15 pounds.

Later in his career, Santo was open about his Type 1 Diabetes, raising awareness for the condition.

Later in his career, Santo was open about his Type 1 Diabetes, raising awareness for the condition.

The injections made his secret increasingly difficult to keep. When he reported to spring training in 1962, Santo told the team physician about his diabetes and asked him to keep it to himself. He also eventually confided in his roommate, catcher Cuno Barragan, who became another set of eyes, watching out for when Santo turned pale. But he still feared that management would attribute any performance slump to the disease, and he wanted to prove that he could play baseball in the big leagues before telling them.

These were the days before glucometers and Santo had to monitor his blood sugar level by feel. According to the Chicago Reader, “Trying to juggle insulin injections with time zones, cold April nights, hot August days, extra innings, and late meals made that first year terribly difficult.” He batted .227, and he led National League third basemen in errors.

“You don’t know how tough it was,” Santo said. “It took me four years to adjust to the two-hour time difference in California, one hour in the east. Day ball was perfect for me. I could regulate things — get up in the morning, have my insulin at eight o’clock, eat a big breakfast, come to the ballpark, work out, have a candy bar or a Coke before the game, and then after the game get a Coke in me.”

The following year, he hit .297, made the National League All-Star team, and was named team captain. He also opened up to his teammates about his diabetes. For twenty-some minutes, he described his illness in a pregame meeting — the urine samples, blood tests, diet restrictions, and the dizziness that sometimes struck him on the field. When he finished, the locker room fell silent, and then someone shouted, “That’s okay, Captain. Let’s play ball.”

That’s okay, Captain. Let’s play ball.

His fellow players were unfazed, but Santo continued to keep the disease secret from the public until 1971. That year, he also started his decades long work to help raise awareness for Type 1 diabetes. A few years later, he joined the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and together they began the annual Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, which raised more than $40 million during his life.

“It’s funny. I always thought I’d make my biggest mark as a ballplayer, but it was after I started speaking up about diabetes that I really made a difference,” said Santo in his Guideposts’ essay.

After 15 major league seasons, a 34-year-old Santo retired as one of baseball’s greatest third basemen, finishing with a .277 career batting average, 342 home runs, 1,331 runs batted in, and five Gold Glove Awards. He also set a record among third basemen for most games played in a season and most consecutive games played.

In 1990, Santo returned to Wrigley Field as a color commentator for the Cubs alongside play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes. After decades of hiding a big part of his life, he became known for his inability to hold anything back. He was the fans’ emotional id, groaning “Oh, nooo!” into the microphone when a play went awry and shouting “Yes! Yes!” with equal vigor when things went well.

“I always tell people that no former professional athlete ever loved his team the way Santo loved the Cubs,” said Hughes in a recent phone conversation. “You can think of any example that you want, Jerry Rice with the 49ers, or Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers, or Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics. No star player ever loved his team the way Santo loved the Cubs.”

I always thought I’d make my biggest mark as a ballplayer, but it was after I started speaking up about diabetes that I really made a difference

And the fans loved him for it. “Every year that we’re a contender, like right now, the fans think this is the year,” said Hughes. “Ron embodied that spirit. He would never give up. Look at the way he handled his medical issues. He never gave up there, he never gave up as a player, and he always thought it’s about maintaining your optimism in light of horrendous circumstances.”

During these years, Santo’s diabetes began to catch up with him. He had heart attacks and underwent a quadruple-bypass surgery. In 2001, his right leg was amputated below the knee, and he lost his left leg the following year.

Santo is immortalized with his own statue in Chicago.

Santo is immortalized with his own statue in Chicago.

After each surgery, he returned to the commentator booth.

“We travel like absolute lunatics in the baseball business,” said Hughes. “We go coast to coast; you’re gone 100 days a year; you get in at four in the morning on a fairly regular basis. Here’s a guy in prosthetic limbs climbing up the steps to the charter airplane. He would grab the railing with his left hand and he had his cane in his right hand, and just by sheer willpower, he would pull himself up the stairs.”

The word “inspiring” comes up a lot when former players and sports writers talk about how Santo dealt with his diabetes. That’s not how Santo saw things though. He knew he was a great ballplayer, and believed he should join the ranks of teammates Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, and Billy Williams in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But when it came to his diabetes, he didn’t think he was extraordinary.

[Santo] knew he was a great ballplayer… but when it came to his diabetes, he didn’t think he was extraordinary.

In 2008, he told The New York Times, “Until adversity hits you, and I had open-heart surgery and lost both my legs, you think, I can’t get through it. But really, you do what you have to do. I say that to everybody. You have only one way to go, and that’s a positive way.”

Santo died in 2010 of complications from bladder cancer. The following year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the Cubs unveiled the Ron Santo statue outside of Wrigley Field. The bronze likeness captures him in motion, throwing a ball to first base.

His son Jeff Santo, who made the 2004 documentary, This Old Cub, about his father’s life, spoke at the unveiling. “When we were going through the footage for the film … we found some film of my dad giving instruction on how to play third base. In the film he said this, ‘When the ball is hit to you, you should always move forward on the ball. Never stay back on the ball and let the ball play you. You play the ball.’ That’s how he lived his life. He never stayed back on the ball. He was always moving forward.”

Disability Health & Fitness

Chair Skills

In wheelchair tennis, how well you handle your racket is only half the game.

In wheelchair tennis, how well you handle your racket is only half the game.

Wendy Pasinski eyes the incoming ball and wheels furiously across the court. It bounces once, then twice as she swivels into position. She swings her racket, connecting with a powerful forehand that sends the ball straight into the net. “Ugh,” she groans, with a self-deprecating laugh.

Pasinski, 43, isn’t happy with how she’s playing this morning. But in wheelchair tennis, like any sport, there are good days and bad.

Some 30 athletes have gathered in Encino, CA on this hot, cloudless Saturday in April for the 4th annual West Coast Wheelchair Classic, a local tournament sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association. Matches sprawl out over four courts as players from across southern California compete for trophies and ranking. Between games, they talk strategy, and cheer on their fellow contenders. Grunts and whoops of joy or disappointment punctuate the air, along with the soft thwack of balls hitting rackets, and the continuous whir and scrape of wheels pivoting on pavement.

Pasinski is the only female entrant in the tournament this weekend, so she is playing against male opponents in the men’s B division. It’s not unusual at the local level, she says, but not ideal since the games won’t count toward her ranking. Formerly 6th in the U.S. in the women’s wheelchair A division, she has been working to boost her numbers after a back injury knocked her out of the circuit for much of last year.

She relishes the chance to move again, to return to an activity that buoyed her spirits. “It’s good for us emotionally to be out here, especially when we’ve been physically impaired after an accident,” Pasinski says.

Pasinski faces her male opponent, Michael Garafola, who also plays on her wheelchair basketball team.

Pasinski is tan with a blonde ponytail pouring out the back of her white baseball cap. She’s a bright spot on the court in her electric blue top and pink sneakers. You can hear her bubbly laugh halfway across the tennis center. Her first match of the day is against Michael Garafola, 41, a teammate of hers from wheelchair basketball. Pasinski is quick in her chair. She pushes hard to reach the ball, racket in hand, and scrambles to make a shot. “That’s what I’m talking about!” she exclaims after sending back a solid return.

“Years ago, people who had a disability wouldn’t leave the house, wouldn’t get out of bed,” says the mother of two, readjusting her Velcro chair straps between sets. “But now, adaptive sports opens up another world that people might not have known about if they they’ve been in a wheelchair since birth, or that they were missing if they were injured.”

Pasinski lands in the second category. Once an ambitious college athlete, she played basketball, ran track and also dabbled in golf growing up. But on a skiing trip at age 20, she took a jump in slippery conditions and lost control of her skis. She somersaulted through the air, falling hard on the ice and sending two of her vertebrae into her spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the waist down instantly.

It’s good for us emotionally to be out here, especially when we’ve been physically impaired after an accident.

For 15 years after her injury, Pasinski avoided sports. “Part of it was a mental block. I played basketball able-bodied; I didn’t want to play sitting in a wheelchair,” she recalls.

After her son was born, she met a woman whose son played wheelchair basketball and she reconsidered. A week later, she went to UCLA, borrowed a basketball chair and played her first game. Then a friend introduced her to tennis. She loved it. “The sport offered me freedom that I hadn’t felt for so long,” she says.

Garafola, who has been playing wheelchair basketball since 2002 and competitive tennis for just over a year, says getting into sports reawakened his athletic drive after a car accident left him unable to walk at age 15. “Adaptive sports, for me, was like a rebirth,” he says. “My competitive fire was gone for 12 years, and this brought that passion back. The accident changed my life, and then sports changed my life again.” He now runs an adaptive sports program for kids at UCLA.

Wheelchair tennis was established in 1976 by Brad Parks. It is now overseen by the International Tennis Federation, and has been a Paralympic sport since 1992. The rules are nearly the same as in traditional tennis, with one major exception. The ball is allowed to bounce twice before each return, compared to only once in traditional tennis. The first must be in-bounds, while the second may be anywhere on the court and the ball can be played. Otherwise, the scoring, courts and rackets are the same.

One key difference, however, determines how successful a player will be on the court: chair skills.

In wheelchair tennis, your racket doesn’t matter as much as your other equipment.

“Chair skills are the most important thing in any wheelchair sport,” Garafola says. “You have to learn how to hit, of course. But if you can’t move your chair, it’s pointless. I don’t care if you have the best serve or the best forehand – if you can’t control and maneuver your chair, you’ll struggle.”

Garafola recently gave a newbie this advice: “Put your racket down. Go out on the tennis court, get into your chair and just go crazy in it. See what the limits of the chair are, get warmed up. Then go pick up your racket.”

Wheelchairs encompass a surprising range of apparatuses suited to different purposes. Everyday chairs are the ones people use to get around in daily life, with two large rear wheels angled straight up and down and two smaller casters in front. Then there are sports chairs: vehicles designed for tennis, basketball, racing, rugby, and soccer. Sports chairs have canted wheels angled outward at the bottom for greater stability and tighter turning.

Sports chairs cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 and are custom fitted to their users. “You kind of become one with the chair,” says Jerry Russell, 47, who founded the West Coast Wheelchair Classic.

Adaptive sports, for me, was like a rebirth.

The players bond with one another, too. “It’s a great social outlet,” Russell says. “When we get off the court, we’ll go out for a beer. We all travel to the same tournaments together and take care of each other.”

Veterans of the sport often find themselves coaching younger players. Anthony Lara, 41, a two-time Paralympian who played at the Sydney games and was an alternate in Beijing, holds clinics up and down California and will soon offer more programs with his nascent nonprofit, the 1 More Push Foundation. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t develop properly, Lara has been playing tennis for three decades. “A lot of [the kids I coach] would never have dreamed they’d have the type of lifestyle they have, playing tournaments or traveling the world,” he says. “They feel fortunate.”

Part of the value of wheelchair athletics is finding role models and learning you’re not alone, adds Jerry Newman, 51, a former high-rise window washer whose platform tumbled from the building he was working on. “You’re exposed to other people in your situation that have been injured – but these are people who are moving on with their lives,” he says. “They’re not wallowing in their medicine, or ‘why me.’ It gives you a can-do attitude – there’s nothing we can’t do, and everyone shows you that.”

Pasinski and Zack Wentz play some doubles. “Put it where they ain’t!”

Later in the afternoon, Pasinski is back on the court for a doubles match. She and partner Zack Wentz, a 23-year-old USC student, are returning every shot and the score is rising in their favor. “Great shot, Zack – put it where they ain’t!” Newman calls from outside the court, where Pasinski’s husband, son and daughter also watch. After a grueling match, they clinch a sound victory and advance in the bracket. “That was like night and day compared to this morning’s match,” Pasinski says, grinning.

Pasinski attributes a lot to her seven years playing tennis. “Playing sports has made me feel stronger,” she says. “It has helped my confidence to have my body completely break in half, and to recover from that.”

And the game has taught her not to hold onto frustrations. “You have to play the point, and then forget about it,” she explains. “Really, life is like that for me. A day might go by where I don’t physically feel up to it, or I’m having a pity-party and I’m like, ‘This is too hard.’ But there’s only a certain amount of time for that, and then I’ve got to forget about it – because I’ve got to live life.”

All photographs by Sketch Pasinski.