FALMOUTH – Christina Kouros was perched in the seat of her orange racing wheelchair, her helmet strapped on beneath her chin. With a race official nearby to judge her start, Kouros sat alone, her starting line ahead of the able-bodied runners whom she prepared to compete against at the Western Maine Conference championships last weekend.

Then the starting gun sounded. Using her arms to create movement of the push rims on the wheels of her chair, Kouros began the two-lap race around the Falmouth track. She didn’t focus on the runners. She forged ahead.

“It’s all upper body,” Kouros said of how she propels herself in her custom racing wheelchair, adorned with fluorescent decals of flames. “I have to balance with my left leg a little bit to stay upright and straight, but it’s mostly my upper body. I’m used to it. I like long distances. To me, if a runner’s doing a mile, that’s like 2 miles for me, and it’s a lot easier for me on wheels.”

Born without a right leg, Kouros is one of the three Maine wheelchair athletes competing in outdoor track, joining York freshman Hope Reed and Fort Kent sophomore Robbie Hebert. Today, Kouros will be the lone wheelchair athlete in the state championships, which mark the end of the first season of state-sanctioned wheelchair competition in Maine.

“The feedback we’ve received is very positive,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “The track and field committee hopes this encourages other wheelchair athletes to compete.”

ONE OF THE TEAM

As a freshman, Kouros approached Cape Elizabeth Athletic Director Jeff Thoreck about participating. She raced in meets in 2010 but couldn’t compete at the state championships because the MPA had no wheelchair guidelines.

“When you have an opportunity like this for student-athletes, you do what you can and you make it work,” Thoreck said. “It provides such a great opportunity for Christina and for me to see her confidence grow.”

With the help of Phil Galli, the chairman of Wheelchair Track and Field USA, Thoreck, Burnham and Mt. Ararat Coach Diane Fournier formed a subcommittee to develop rules for wheelchair athletes.

They examined guidelines in other states and came up with them for Maine. The guidelines were then approved by the MPA’s interscholastic committee. They include factors such as equipment standards (tire size, weight, length) and safety issues that could arise during competition.

Wheelchair athletes in Maine are allowed to compete against able-bodied competitors and score points for their team in six events: the 100, 400, 800, 1,600, shot put and discus.

“I think I’ve gotten more confident as an athlete because of this,” Kouros said.

“And when I found out this was happening, I thought it was really good for other kids to have this opportunity.”

Hebert, a sophomore who was born with spina bifida and is in a wheelchair, competed this season in the 100 and 400. While he didn’t qualify for the Class C championships, Fort Kent Coach Kate Fecinta has seen a response in both Hebert and his teammates.

“He’s become one of the team,” Fecinta said. “The only thing that makes him different from the other athletes is he’s bound to a wheelchair. He practices, he’s in warmups, he jokes around with his teammates and he’s been able to socialize, and the other athletes have been a very good help to him. He’s a competitor, and he’s got all kinds of positive energy coming out of him.”

Fecinta’s issue in coaching Hebert has been a lack of training resources. She never worked with a wheelchair athlete, and sought out training methods online, workouts that focused on core strength and plyometrics.

“I was a big advocate for this because my athletic director approached me and told me, ‘this has come up and we have a student competing,’ ” Fecinta said.

“As soon as we made the announcement, Robby was all over it. It’s something that happened fairly quickly, and we were lucky that we have a wheelchair athlete who came out and who is so enthusiastic.”

PUTTING THE MYTHS TO REST

Galli and Wheelchair Track and Field USA, part of a national governing body for wheelchair athletics, provided input when the MPA began developing guidelines.

But Galli said there are myths and misconceptions that confront the promotion of wheelchair athletics: that athletes in some states can compete yet cannot score points for their team in competition, that some state associations may not be receptive to allowing wheelchair competition, and that legal cases that may potentially deter other prospective wheelchair athletes from competition. It’s a fallacy, Galli said, because of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that bans discrimination on the basis of disabilities.

Galli can’t put an exact number on how many states sanction wheelchair competition, estimating it between 10 and 15.

“It’s a hard number to put ourselves around,” Galli said. “It vacillates because the areas are so geographically dispersed. You might have one (athlete), and then you won’t have another for a few years. Athletes might not be there because schools aren’t promoting those sports like they should.”

A WELL-DESERVED CHEER

On the second lap of the 800, Kouros made her third turn as the runners began to cross the finish line. On Kouros’ final turn, the final runner in the heat crossed the finish line, but Kouros didn’t watch.

Instead she kept pushing against her wheels, spinning to the finish. The cheers grew as she approached the final stretch.

For the first and only time that day, the sun peeked through the clouds as Kouros crossed the finish line in 3 minutes, 54.24 seconds — a state qualifying time — and the applause came from across the stadium.

“I just want to inspire people,” Kouros said. “And to show other kids that they have a chance to participate in a sport. They don’t have to sit on the side and watch their team.”

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be contacted at 791-6415 or at:

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