It’s become second nature for Sam and Tracy Tabaka to inspire others to discover and push their physical limits. While she has completed countless marathons and once traveled the world racing in alpine ski competitions, he has finished three Ironman triathlons and counting.
These accomplishments are particularly impressive when you consider the fact that the couple, who are parents to two exceedingly active children under age 5, are also paraplegic. When they were children, Tracy, 35, suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident, and Sam, 36, was injured in an ATV accident.
After those life-changing events, the Tabakas both found joy and inspiration in adaptive sports. It’s also how they met — at a Courage Center ski camp at Spirit Mountain in Duluth. They say it was the freedom, camaraderie, and sheer love of being outside that motivated them to get active.
Both instructors and educators for the Outdoor Recreation School for Three Rivers Parks District, the Rogers couple has been instrumental in building the district’s adaptive programming. The organization’s docket of activities now includes Nordic skiing, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, archery and more. They serve nearly 1,400 participants annually with a wide range of disabilities related to things like spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, traumatic brain injuries, and Down syndrome.
In a recent interview at their home, the Tabakas discussed their own active pursuits and why it’s important to them to help inspire others with physical disabilities to get involved in outdoor recreation.
On their own entries into adaptive recreation
Tracy: I was in a car accident when I was 8. It was 1989 and the only thing I could have done was wheelchair basketball, and I’m no good at basketball [laughs]. At one point when I was 20 years old I was watching my brother wakeboard and I thought, I have to find something. I discovered an adaptive water ski program at Courage Center and picked it up really quickly, so they said I should try the snow skiing program, and things snowballed from there.
Sam: I was injured when I was 13 in an ATV accident up where we lived in northern Minnesota. My dad actually bought me a hand cycle almost right away, so it was nice to be able to get out and do something active again. That was pretty freeing. When I went to college, I chose St. Scholastica because I was wanting to go somewhere were I could ski and play basketball. So it snowballed for me, too.
On the difference adaptive sports have made in their lives
Tracy: It’s huge. We’ve met a tremendous amount of people through sports, including each other. It’s made us appreciate the outdoors, too. We don’t spend a lot of time inside watching television. We want to be outside with our kids.
Sam: It really has had an important impact on our lives. We both really enjoy sports and being able to stay in good shape.
On making adaptive opportunities a priority
Tracy: A lot of companies and organizations we’ve run into over the years of being in a chair often don’t want to take that extra step to make things accessible. It’s thought of as too much work and too expensive. Three Rivers has been great, and they’ve always from day one asked, ‘How can we help to include more people in our programs?’ There is a big support system that works together — an entire team — not just the two of us.
Sam: Three Rivers just wants more people with disabilities using the parks, so that’s what we’re trying to help with. For instance, we have four adaptive mountain bikes at Elm Creek with a portion of the single track trail extra wide to accommodate the bikes. They have another one at Murphy-Hanrehan, and they’re building a new trail at Lake Rebecca, too.
On persuading people to try
Sam: Being wary at first is very common. We had one woman who is a high (quadriplegic) who was always on my e-mail list for opportunities, and she finally came out and shot archery and ended up really enjoying it. Then she came out on a Mississippi River kayak trip after that and did really well. One thing leads to another. It’s about encouraging people to come see what it’s like. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, just come take a look.
Tracy: We offer demo days twice a year at French [Regional] Park in the spring and fall, and we have four to five different activities available for people to come out and try. We also have a campfire with s’mores, so if you just want to come out and socialize and watch other people try the activities, you can do that, too. Those have been really popular for getting people into our base programs. We’ve found that once somebody tries one program, it’s much easier to get them into something else. They realize ‘I can actually do this. And I get to be outside. And I can leave my chair.’
On leading by example
Tracy: I’ve heard from a number of people who see our Facebook page with pictures from traveling and biking. We each have a hand cycle, and our 5-year-old has a tag-along attached to my bike. And Sam has our 2-year-old in a chariot trailer, and we just go. It’s nice to hear that other people who saw us doing these things then decide to try it for themselves.
Sam: We want (our kids) to learn a love for nature and a healthy lifestyle. It’s important that we model that.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.