CAPE ELIZABETH – Christina Kouros leaned over one of three waxing tables propped on the yellow-painted concrete floor of what in autumn serves as the high school football locker room.

With a small red tool the size and shape of a ballpoint pen, she scraped fresh wax from the groove of her overturned skate ski. She gripped the tool with one hand, her left. The other hand held her crutches.

When Kouros and teammate Dana Hatton, a freshman working on Kouros’s other ski, finished with the pair, Cape Elizabeth Nordic Coach Deven Morrill hopped down from a casket-sized wooden chest filled with waxes, poles, gloves and mittens and gave the bottoms a final scrape and brushing before pronouncing them good to go.

Kouros smiled.

She’s been doing that a lot lately.

“She’s always smiling,” said Skyler Dunfey, a senior captain for the Cape Elizabeth Nordic ski team. “It seems like she really likes doing it.”

What Kouros, who was born with only one leg, is doing is competing. Not as an afterthought, not as a mascot, not as an exhibition.

As an athlete on the high school Nordic ski team.

LEADING THE WAY

A 15-year-old sophomore, Kouros has competed this winter in six races, including the Sassi Memorial Saturday at Black Mountain in Rumford, where all of the best high school skiers in Maine gathered.

Yes, her skis are slightly different. Affixed to each are two pairs of bindings instead of one. She sits in a makeshift chair buckled into those bindings.

And yes, she earns every inch of the course by pushing off with both poles throughout the snowy terrain.

“If I had to double-pole everywhere and up hills, I don’t know,” Dunfey said. “We do it for fun sometimes and we give up halfway up the hill.”

Kouros is more than an inspiration to her teammates, however. She’s blazing a trail that promises to change the landscape of high school athletics in Maine.

Last spring, she raced her wheelchair in two interscholastic track meets, and Cape Elizabeth Athletic Director Jeff Thoreck is working with the Maine Principals’ Association to encourage other high school students who use wheelchairs to compete.

“this spring, we’re hoping she’ll be able to score and qualify for the state championships,” Thoreck said. “I think this will really open up some opportunities for those students in Maine who never even thought this was an option.”

Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, has been working with Wheelchair Track and Field USA to draft a proposal that would incorporate athletes such as Kouros into the sport.

Burnham said he expects to have a recommendation for the full track and field committee for its next meeting on March 11. Upon approval, Kouros could fully participate in outdoor track this spring.

STATE BY STATE

Maine would join about a dozen other states that incorporate wheelchair athletes into high school track and field competition, at varying levels. New Jersey, for instance, has welcomed wheelchair athletes for a quarter century, albeit on a non-scoring basis. Louisiana awards points up to the number of wheelchair athletes in the race (3-2-1 scoring if three athletes are entered, for example) provided they meet certain established standards.

Other states have chosen to fight the issue in court (Maryland recently lost and Illinois is likely to follow suit).

The Americans with Disabilities Act “is pretty clear,” said Phil Galli, chairman of Wheelchair Track and Field USA.

Galli’s daughter, Jessica, holds wheelchair world records at 400 and 800 meters and won five medals at the Beijing Paralympic Games, more than any other track and field athlete. In 1999, when she was the same age as Kouros, Jessica Galli competed in her first and only Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race. She finished second behind another teenage girl, both of them ahead of the first male wheelchair racer.

ATHLETES REACT

The B2B race course passes the Cape Elizabeth street where Kouros has lived since her family moved from Durham, N.H., when she was in fifth grade. Born in India, she was adopted as a baby. Her sister Ana, just a month younger, plays volleyball and runs track. Her brother Alex, a senior, enjoys karate.

“I would always watch (the wheelchair racers in Beach to Beacon) and kind of admire them, see how hard they’re working,” said Kouros, brushing aside wispy strands of black hair hanging down over her face. “I was going to do it last year but I kind of chickened out. I think I’m going to do it this year because I have more strength and I know people will cheer for me.”

Indeed, so much positive energy surrounds Kouros that it seems hard to imagine states dragging their heels on this issue. Morrill, the Cape Elizabeth Nordic coach, didn’t hesitate for a moment when Kouros showed up at a preseason meeting to ask if she could join the team.

“Oh, if I think about it, I’ll start crying,” said Andrea Kouros, Christina’s mom. “He’s the most amazing coach. He has changed her, by treating her like a regular kid.”

Morrill notices the effect Christina has on athletes, parents and coaches from other schools.

“The reaction from other schools has been wonderful,” Morrill said. “It’s pretty cool to watch the reactions of the kids, especially the guys who watch her double-poling up a pretty long hill.”

Jerald Cunningham of Atlantic ProCare, a Portland company that makes prosthetic limbs and bracing, is donating a custom-designed ski system for Kouros so she can kneel instead of sit, for better leverage while poling.

A high school technology class taught by Jim Ray, the Cape Elizabeth boys’ basketball coach, is also working on a prototype that could be copied by other schools with sit skiers.

“That’s our goal, to have other students in Maine look for an opportunity like this and take advantage of it,” said Thoreck, the Cape athletic director. “Just seeing the growth and the confidence that Christina has developed has been inspirational for me. It’s really been refreshing. She’s so quiet and modest but she could really have a huge impact on wheelchair athletes in the state of Maine.”

ONE OF THE TEAM

Growing up in Durham, Kouros became acquainted with Northeast Passage, a therapeutic recreation program based at the University of New Hampshire, at an early age. It has been a good fit, and continues to this day.

Some kids like music. Others like drama. Christina likes sports.

In middle school, she held that in check, not confident that she could compete with her peers. As a high school freshman, she volunteered to be manager of the volleyball team.

Now? She’s one of the team. Paralympics are a distinct possibility. Last weekend, she attended an adaptive ski camp in Jackson, N.H., with other Northeast Passage athletes and met with coaches of the U.S. Paralympic team.

“I just consider her a skier,” said senior captain Lexi Weatherbie, “not a disabled athlete.”

On Saturday at Black Mountain, Weatherbie was one of five Cape Elizabeth teammates who joined Kouros in a 3-kilometer sit ski race, thanks to several borrowed rigs from Northeast Passage.

“It was so hard,” said sophomore Francesca Governali, who crashed into a fence post near the bottom of one hill and needed a boost from a standing skier’s pole — thanks to a cleverly-placed apple corer affixed like an exhaust pipe to the sit ski — to ascend a small hill.

“Christina makes it look so easy,” she said. “Going up those hills, we had to have people push us.”

Abby Mace, a junior from Maranacook who won the girls 5K race, joined the Cape skiers trailing Kouros — and they all trailed Kouros, who finished the course in 22 minutes, 34.5 seconds.

“This makes me appreciate what Christina does even more,” Mace said. “I saw her at Leavitt (earlier this month) and my teammates and I were just so amazed. It was so cool to experience that (Saturday).”

Kouros has a message for other kids who use wheelchairs or crutches or any alternative means of locomotion.

“You have support everywhere,” she said. “Don’t listen to the people who put you down. They’re not worth listening to. You’re as capable as everyone else.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]