Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wheelchair athletes roll to the finish

Published in the Current

(Aug 11, 2005): The first racer across the finish line at Fort Williams Park Saturday was a wheelchair athlete, Tony Nogueira, who won the race for the sixth time, in 0:25:35, a 4:07 mile pace.

The wheelchairs reach speeds of about 30 mph, according to Peter Hawkins, who finished seventh in the division, in 0:31:57.

Hawkins and six others, including Nogueira, second-place Kamel Ayari (0:26:31) and Erik Corbett (fifth, in 0:29:07), spent the night before the race and the night after at a Cape Elizabeth assisted-living home, which opened its spare rooms at no charge to the racers, who needed wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and eating facilities.

Those are hard to find in private homes in Cape Elizabeth, where many out-of-town runners stay, but Village Crossings at Cape Elizabeth on Scott Dyer Road had just renovated several rooms, which were slated to be vacant while work finished up.

David Rogers, assistant executive director at Village Crossings, said the building had the space and it seemed to fit a need. Some years as many as 12 wheelchair racers have competed, according to Russ Connors, a Cape resident who coordinates their arrangements.

The stay at Village Crossings was a good change for Erik Corbett, 25, of Methuen, Mass., who drove up from his home early in the morning of race day 2004, rather than struggling to get ready in unfamiliar and difficult surroundings. This year, he got to “sleep in,” he said, because he was already in town, in accessible accommodations.

Hawkins, a Long Island native who drove up Friday in his van, and gave his friend Ayari a lift, participates in several races each year. He likes the Beach to Beacon for the workout.

“It’s a challenge because it’s not flat,” he said. But the hills also bring risk: “The most dangerous part is when you go down into the park,” heading downhill at top speed into a sharp right turn in toward the finish line.

Hawkins has been racing in his wheelchair for nearly 20 years now. “You have the opportunity to race almost every week,” he said.

He was paralyzed in a car crash during his senior year in high school. Hawkins, the captain of his school’s football team and a member of the lacrosse team, was sleeping in the passenger seat of a car whose driver was drunk.

Hawkins said it took him several years to get into wheelchair athletics after his accident, and he also had to adjust to an individual sport, in which he can compete against himself, from a team-sport mindset, in which winning is everything.

The biggest wheelchair race in the world is the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in Japan, which attracts as many as 500 racers from around the world. In the 2004 race, Hawkins finished 74th, with a time of 2:05:59.

More than 100 wheelchair athletes compete in the New York City Marathon, which is where Ayari met his wife after winning the 2000 race. She asked for his autograph at the finish line, and he asked for her phone number.

Hawkins calls Ayari and others, who are professional racers rolling for a living “big-time athletes,” who are “as good an athlete” as the runners in the races.

Ayari, a native of Tunisia, North Africa, now living in New York said his wheelchair – all the racers’ chairs are custom-made – costs about $5,000, and when a tire blows that costs him another $150. A blowout happened in last year’s Beach to Beacon, during the rain squall that hit during the race. Ayari was able to change the tire and still finished third.

Though the wheelchair itself weighs only about 25 pounds, with the 135-pound Ayari aboard, it’s hard work. “You have to push all the weight with your fingers,” he said.

But for him it is work. He is sponsored by a wheelchair manufacturer and races for the prize money. He will be in the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod next weekend, and wants to do well there too.

“I’m not looking to come to the race just to have fun,” said Ayari.