Folks, if you’re looking for some real heroes – how ‘bout you check out sometime the work (and play!) of the Wheelchair Sports Federation, an organization that for years now has been providing immeasurable inspiration not just to those who get to participate in their many tournaments but also to any and all privileged enough to bear witness to them.
Heroes? You bet. Heroes like Larry Labiak, a veteran softball catcher out of Chicago who’s as much respected as he is feared. A quadriplegic with a demeanor akin to Thurman Munson or Carlton Fisk, when Labiak’s catching, a bang-bang play at the plate takes on new meaning. “Damn, Larry sure is good at holding onto that ball,” his opponents will begrudgingly admit. Then there’s that multi-sport phenom Dylan Levine, the Olympian who’s as well-versed in Wheelchair Basketball as he is in Wheelchair Tennis, a fierce competitor who finds himself not just among the game’s elite, but one of its most engaging ambassadors, as well.
In our view, though, the guy who merits the biggest tip of the cap here would have to be Wheelchair Sports Federation President John Hamre, the Middle Village resident who’s been spearheading the operation for nearly a decade now. (And all on a volunteer basis, we should point out.) A neighborhood guy with his heart in the right place, Hamre’s been able to take the organization to the next level – expanding its repertoire of Adaptive Sports, and forging strategic partnerships with entities like the New York Mets, the New Jersey Nets, the NYC Parks Department, the NY Sports Commission and more, all in the interests of providing the program and its participants some much-needed capital to ensure that their clinics, their games, their tournaments, are state-of-the-art with the best equipment possible.
For Hamre, a tireless coach as well, the best part of the Federation work is not just the ongoing sustenance it provides its regular participants, but also the window into a new world it can provide to someone who’d never dreamed that their disability would ever allow them to engage in sports. “We provide information, we provide clinics – anything we can do to introduce that individual to Adaptive Sports, all the way up to the better-known step of funding organized leagues to compete in.”
The practice of any sport has the obvious physical benefits of toning, strengthening and improving overall health, something that’s, of course, also true regarding someone with a disability. Adaptive Sports, though, can also play a critical role in a person’s psychological well- being, too. It can motivate and inspire an individual who’s led a very isolated life to being integrated with other persons who’ve had similar experiences, and who are striving to live active and productive lives. Not only that, it fosters confidence, self-esteem, even independence. As a part of its mission statement, the Wheelchair Sports Federation emphasizes and educates the public as to what a person’s ability is, rather than their disability.
Just a few weekends ago, Manhattan College hosted the 10th Annual NYC Mayor’s Cup Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. Eleven wheelchair teams from all across the country participated, including local favorites like the Bulova Nets, NY Rolling Knicks, NY Nets, Suffolk County Cobras, and Nassau Kings, as well as teams from New England like the NEPVA Celtics, Bay State Clippers, New England Blazers, and Connecticut Spokebenders. Pennsylvania (Allied Forces) and Ohio (Cleveland Cavaliers) were also represented in the tourney.
Sponsored by the New York City Sports Commission, Barclays Nets Community Alliance, the Louise and Arde Bulova Foundation and the Wheelchair Sports Federation, the exciting three-day tournament came to an end with the NEPVA Celtics, led by tournament MVP Omar Benetiz, outlasting the impressive Cleveland Cavaliers, by the score of 43 to 30.
Just two weeks prior to that, the NY METS hosted the organization’s annual Softball Tournament in Citi Field’s Parking Lot A. (Under the watchful “gaze” of an image of former Marine Gil Hodges, it should be pointed out, who surely must have been pleased with what he was seeing from his perch on high.)
In a thrilling back-and-forth come-from-behind victory, the Colorado Rockies defeated the vaunted RIC Chicago Cubs in a thriller for the ages, 9-8 in extra innings. To their credit, most of the Rockies’ damage was done with two outs.
Tournament MVP Paul Smith was asked afterwards, what’s two outs in a softball game when life has already pushed your back against the wall time and time again? “That’s the thing about this – what we go through in life definitely helps us with what we have to deal with in the games. But you could also say, what we go through in the games, it helps us with what we go through in life, too.”
Next up for the Wheelchair Sports Federation, GIANTS-JETS Wheelchair Football!
Of course, when all is said and done, the ego-less Hamre – the consummate team player – is quick to point out that despite the corporate sponsorship the tournaments have been able to benefit from, he and the organization would never be able to do this without the tireless dedication of fellow volunteers like NYU’s Jon Rosenberg, DANNY BOY’S George Gibbons and Tommy Ruth, and a whole host of others who year after year lend their time, money, and enthusiasm to the cause.
“If we didn’t have that kind of support,” says Hamre, “we’d never be able to continue to do this.”
If you can find it in your hearts to help out a terrific cause like the Wheelchair Sports Federation, please visit them on the web at www.WheelchairSportsFederation.org, or feel free to call John Hamre himself at (917) 519-2622.