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Support System "Wingmen" help those with disabilities run

Beth Tober’s motivation to run derived from entering and training for races. But after amassing an entire drawer full of medals and race T-shirts, she felt her motivation flagging. “Why am I still just running?” she remembers thinking. “There’s got to be something more to it than this.”

Her longtime running partner suggested Tober inject interest and accountability into her runs by getting involved with Athletes Serving Athletes, an organization that pairs children and adults with disabilities with able-bodied “wingmen” to participate in mainstream races.

Tober resisted. “My response was always: ‘I’m not fast enough. I’m not strong enough. There’s no way I can push someone in a jogging stroller,’” she says. But one evening in April 2014 while perusing Facebook, she saw the group was “desperate for help with a training run” on the NCR Trail the following morning. She showed up, and six years later, Tober is still in the race. “I’ve run with kids as young as 5 years old, up to adults in their 30s with all different ranges of abilities and disabilities,” Tober says.

For Tober, racing has become “about seeing the joy and happiness not only from the athletes, but from the families. The families are so appreciative that their child — or their brother, their sister, their loved one — gets to participate in an activity, just like everybody else, that would otherwise be totally inaccessible to them.”

Speed matters less now to Tober. “The fact that I have a strong body and strong lungs and I’m able to help someone who would otherwise not be able to participate, it really makes you feel good.” And, she enjoys working with runners “who have the same mindset. I’ve never been on a team that didn’t work well together.”

Dave Slomkowski, ASA’s executive director and founder, says the idea to start Athletes Serving Athletes came to him in 2008 after learning about the Hoyt brothers, one of whom ran pushing the other in a jogging wheelchair in races.

A lacrosse player all the way through school, Slomkowski says his active lifestyle “went by the wayside” after college. He volunteered with the Special Olympics but wondered why nobody had thought to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream competitive events. “Who’s doing this?” he wondered. When his inquiries were met with shrugs, he says, he knew he’d have to create the opportunities himself.

He launched ASA by connecting with a school for kids with disabilities, then completing his first race with a Baltimore city student named James. Slomkowski says it was “life-changing” for both of them. With James’ name emblazoned on his jogging stroller, “James was a celebrity,” he says. And Slomkowski had found a reason to run.

Today, ASA participates in seven communities (generally organized by county) and runs in nearly 100 Maryland races.

Tober says volunteer wingmen can “participate as much or as little” as they wish, as long as they “do at least one training run.” Volunteers start as wingmen and can become captains once they’ve run a few races and gone through “another layer” of background checks and vetting. “Ideally, we’ll have two captains and four wingmen to support every athlete,” Tober says.

The disability community has embraced ASA to the point where ASA could use more wingmen, Slomkowski says. In fact, five of the areas have waiting lists for athletes. But wingmen don’t have to be super athletes to participate. “If you can jog a slow 5K, we need you,” he says. “It’s not about pace. It’s about being together.”

Six-year-old Joe Hudak joined ASA with his own wingman, his father, Clark Hudak. Joe, who has a diagnosis of MEF2C haploinsufficiency syndrome and autism, loves racing with his dad. “He just loves being outside and loves having the wind in his face,” Joe’s mother, Jennifer, says. “Once that jogger starts going, especially if it’s a sunny day, he just loves it.”

In addition to motivating Clark Hudak to exercise, participating in ASA races is a bonding moment for father and son. Clark says ASA allows Joe to be “a part of something. Kids with disabilities aren’t a part of everyday mainstream things, and I get to do that with him.”

Racing motivates Joe as well, Jennifer says. Joe “took his first steps after an ASA training run,” she remembers.
Both Clark and Joe particularly love participating in Columbia’s Glow Run. The nighttime race is lit up by racers themselves and their gear. “Joe loves lights,” Jennifer says, so she decked out his stroller in lights and glow sticks, and Clark got him a light-changing Mohawk. In the dark, “the wingmen disappear,” Jennifer says. And “it’s all about Joe.”

“I’m not the best runner,” Clark admits. “But you don’t have to be. Your team will run with you. Especially on race day, enthusiasm alone can get you motivated.” Everyone — athletes, wingmen and captains alike — “are all so happy to be there.”

Tober, now a team captain, says ASA has given her running a purpose again. “I have a couple races that I still do on my own to see how fast I can go, but for the most part, all the races I do now are with ASA.”

About Erica Rimlinger

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