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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Illinois high school Disabled Runners seek chance to qualify for IHSA State Track Meet

The sun had barely risen Friday when Aaron Holzmueller started his daily workout, running 1,000-meter laps around a grass field at Evanston Township High School with a slightly unbalanced gait.

Aaron, a 15-year-old sophomore, has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects movement and coordination. It causes him to run somewhat gingerly, but he can still hold a pace of 8 minutes per mile.

another nice article on disability issues from The Chicago TribuneJohn Keilman | Aug 4, 2015

That has made him one of the top disabled runners for his age in the country. But here in Illinois, he can't even make it to the high school track and field championship. That's because the Illinois High School Association, which recently created events for teens who use wheelchairs, has declined to do the same for "para-ambulatory" athletes — those with physical disabilities who can still run.

IHSA Executive Director Marty Hickman said young people with disabilities should be integrated into their school teams, not ensured a place at the state championships. Adding more than wheelchair events to the state track meet could unleash a cascade of requests the IHSA would be hard-pressed to oblige, he said.

"At some point, you really fundamentally alter what we do here, and we don't think the law requires us to do that," he said.

But Holzmueller and other para-ambulatory athletes say they deserve the same opportunity the IHSA, in the wake of a discrimination lawsuit filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, granted teens who use wheelchairs. Their parents have asked the organization to change the rules and, despite being turned down, plan to ask again.

"Our track team is known for consistently doing well (at state); this past year we finished second," Holzmueller said. "I want to experience that."

People with disabilities have competed at a high level for decades — the Paralympic Games, held in conjunction with the Olympics, date to 1960 — but high schools have only recently started to catch up. Louisiana is among the leaders, allowing both wheelchair athletes and the para-ambulatory to compete in dedicated track and field events ranging from the 100-meter dash to the shot put.

Keith Alexander, assistant executive director of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, said the organization added para-ambulatory events a few years ago in response to a school's request. It created performance standards that disabled athletes have to meet to qualify for state — the cutoff for the boys' 100-meter dash, for instance, is 35 seconds — and some years has had as many as a dozen competitors.

"For want of a better term, it's been a great crowd-pleaser," Alexander said. "The fans get behind them — they really get involved and cheer them on."

Disabled high school athletes in Illinois saw their options expand recently after Madigan's office sued the IHSA. Madigan alleged that the organization had failed to accommodate a Fenwick High School swimmer, paralyzed from the waist down, who wanted a chance to compete at the state championship.

The IHSA, which said it had been working on new opportunities for the disabled before the lawsuit, created new races for swimmers with disabilities and wheelchair events for track and field. A final settlement, announced in June, allowed those athletes' results to count toward their teams' standings.

Athletes like Holzmueller, though, weren't included in the agreement.

"We're not where we'd like to be for athletes who have a physical disability but are ambulatory," said Cindy Housner of the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association. "We as an organization right now have at least eight athletes that have cerebral palsy and are at the high school level. The numbers would multiply once we started getting the word out."

Holzmueller has been running competitively since fourth grade and, in his freshman year at Evanston, he participated in cross-country, track and swimming, drawing raves from coach Donald Michelin.

"Hardest worker we've got," said Michelin, Holzmueller's cross-country and track coach. "The guy who wants it more than anyone else. Never finished last in a cross-country race. He's just that type of guy. He brings to the table that kind of inner drive you've got to have if you want to be good."

The family of Annie Schlesinger, 16, a runner with cerebral palsy who competes for Naperville Central, said they received a similar answer when they inquired about the inclusion of para-ambulatory runners. Schlesinger said that while she has enjoyed her experience on the team, the chance to make the state championship and contribute to a school's overall success could inspire more disabled athletes to participate.

"I hope that the addition of disability standards would not only give new opportunity to disabled athletes, but also show our able bodied peers that we have the same goals as they do, even if we have to take a different route to reach them," she said.

Madigan spokeswoman Eileen Boyce would not comment on why para-ambulatory track athletes were not included in the settlement, saying she couldn't address internal discussions. But she said creating opportunities for those teens is "an important next step."

Holzmueller's parents nonetheless plan to ask the IHSA again to create qualifying standards for the para-ambulatory. Officials with U.S. Paralympics, the governing body for athletes with physical and visual disabilities, said Missouri, Texas, and California are poised to join Louisiana in offering events to those competitors.

Cathy Sellers, the organization's director of high performance track and field, said that while U.S. Paralympics groups athletes into 24 classifications, it encourages high schools to take a simpler approach: Those who can walk are considered para-ambulatory; those who can't compete in wheelchairs.

"We firmly believe that everyone has the right to compete, but by saying that, we don't want (states) to do it because of the legality," she said. "We want them to do it because it's the right thing to do."

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ihsa-disabled-athletes-met-20150804-story.htmlCopyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

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