When Sam Tabaka asks someone in a wheelchair to go mountain biking, he’s used to the reaction.
“They’ll think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ ” he said.
But he’s also used to what happens once they see the hand-cycling equipment and take it for a spin.
“Usually, when you get them out there,” he said, “they’re hooked.”
That’s Tabaka’s job. With his wife, Tracy, he runs adaptive outdoor programs in the Three Rivers Park District, a huge scattering of parks that serve the west Twin Cities suburbs and other areas.
Since launching in 2010 with cross-country skiing, Three Rivers’ adaptive programs have added kayaking, archery, geocaching and now ice fishing and maple sugaring. The adaptive program runs about 20 public events each year and is also booked for group events and for school trips to Three Rivers parks, which run from Anoka County in the north to Scott County in the south.
When their class goes on a nature field trip, children with disabilities too often will stay off the trails, Tabaka said. Sometimes they won’t come at all. But Tabaka, 35, is there to get them interested in shooting a bow, or checking out an accessible trail.
“I know what these kids are dealing with,” said Tabaka. At 13 he was paralyzed below the waist in an ATV accident. Going to a small, rural school, he didn’t have options to keep playing football or basketball.
“I had to find new things,” he said.
He started doing more wilderness-oriented sports, like cross-country skiing, kayaking and mountain-biking. It was good luck: He met Tracy, who competed internationally for a disabled alpine ski team, at a ski camp in Duluth. Now they’re partners in training for marathons, triathlons and loads of other sports.
In other words, “You don’t always have to hang out at the visitors center,” he said. “There’s lots of things you can do.”
For kids in the metro area with disabilities, there are now more opportunities to get involved than in previous generations, both with traditional high school sports, run through a statewide athletics conference, and at places like Three Rivers and the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, a hub for adaptive sports in the Twin Cities.
Courage Kenny is the state’s main chapter of Disabled Sports USA, which organizes adaptive sports opportunities for 60,000 people each year with physical and cognitive disabilities, including wounded veterans. There are 266,000 Minnesotans with disabilities between ages 18 and 64, according to the American Community Survey.
As with hesitant children on a field trip, Tabaka wants those adults to know that the outdoor sports are something they can do, too.
The Three Rivers program is having an impact. From 20 participants in its first year, it has grown to serving more than 100 so far in 2014. In the 2012-13 year, Tracy wrote in an article for the trade magazine “Parks & Recreation,” “the Park District reached approximately 400 total participants through its adapted programming efforts.”
Those efforts are expanding. Ice fishing and maple sugaring have been added as the newest adaptive programs. This summer, an informal veterans kayak club, arranged with Veterans Affairs staff, went paddling four times, and there are plans for hiking and snowshoeing events as well.
In addition to its open house events, meant to encourage people to try a new sport, Three Rivers also rents out its adaptive equipment.
Events and rentals are crucial. For able-bodied people, transportation to an activity and the cost of equipment is challenging enough. But for people with disabilities, that challenge is magnified — especially when it comes to adaptive equipment, which is very expensive. The hand cycles owned by Three Rivers cost $6,000 a piece, Tabaka said, and the adaptive equipment for their kayaks doubles the price to $2,000 each.
‘That fulfillment again’
It was about seven years ago, at a weekly bike ride through Courage Kenny, that Steve Litzkow met Sam Tabaka. Now Litzkow is a regular at Three Rivers’ adaptive cross-country ski club and has gone kayaking and mountain biking with them — the latter, he said, was once something he never thought he would do again.
Litzkow, 60, has always been active. But after suffering a second traumatic brain injury eight years ago, anyone would have understood if he had given up the pursuits he had continued for decades, despite living with narcolepsy, the result of his first injury, at age 20, while in the military.
Instead of stopping, Litzkow is just coming off a half-marathon “trek” on the famous Birkebeiner cross-country ski route. He’s preparing for a fourth year of its adaptive ski race, held in February.
Come snowfall, he will have the benefit of practicing with the adaptive ski club, which meets eight times through the winter. Litzkow skis, but as a regular participant, he also helps out when there aren’t volunteers. He can help people get in and out of skis, and even though his injuries affect his balance, he will get out of his own sitting-ski rig if another skier needs help getting up a hill.
Litzkow enjoys the community created by the groups with Sam and Tracy, and encourages others to keep coming out, too. He talked about returning to the REI in Bloomington, where he had chatted with an employee in a wheelchair, about going cross-country skiing.
Cross-country skiing, especially as an adaptive skier, is not for the fainthearted. Sitting in a chair mounted on skis means that the only way to move forward is double-pulling with Nordic poles.
“It’s harder, definitely a lot harder,” said Litzkow.
So are other sports, including biking. “You have to change your whole mind-set as far as what I could do,” he said.
Years ago, Litzkow’s first ride of the season, when he was able to race road and mountain bikes, was 25 miles without a second thought. But then his narcolepsy medication stopped working. When he eventually started biking again, he was spent after a half-mile.
Since then, he has made the ride from his home in St. Croix Falls, Wis., to Danbury, a 50-mile trip that would be an accomplishment for an active, able-bodied person.
Discussing the setbacks of multiple brain injuries, Litzkow is remarkably serene.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” he said, “but I’ll tell you right now, the people I’ve been able to meet, and some of the opportunities I’ve had to meet other athletes,” — including competitors at last year’s Paralympics in Sochi — have been worth it for the fellowship.
Getting involved in a sport with other people, and competing with them, he said, “It kind of gives you that fulfillment again,” even if it’s in a different way.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Twin Cities freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.