HOUSTON – Zach Ruhl has fallen in love with wheelchair sports in the past year. And he’s already looking to take it to the next level.
The 24-year-old got a chance to test his skills at the Gateway for Gold event Sunday in downtown Houston.
Ruhl was one of about 30 athletes with Paralympic eligible impairments working out with representatives from U.S. Paralympics at the talent identification event.
Ian Lawless, the high performance director for the U.S. Paralympics cycling program, leads a cycling test at the Gateway to Gold event in Houston.
“I think I did pretty good,” Ruhl said. “I think I made a good impression, hopefully, good enough.”
Gateway to Gold, a new initiative started in September, is giving the U.S. Paralympic Team a chance to introduce sports to athletes and possibly find potential new national team members. Olympians, including skier Bode Miller, are serving as ambassadors for Gateway to Gold in an effort to encourage people with physical disabilities and visual impairments to dream of competing for Team USA.
The Gateway for Gold program will continue through the end of the year with talent identification events for swimming in Lake Forest, Ill., (Nov. 17), wheelchair basketball in New Orleans (Nov. 23), alpine skiing in Park City, Utah, (Nov. 29) and wheelchair tennis in Franconia, N.H. (Dec. 14). The event in Houston got the program off to a great start.
“This event is great for different sports to give us an opportunity to come out and try to find prospects for future years,” said Elliot Blake, the sitting volleyball coordinator for USA Volleyball and the University of Central Oklahoma.
The event, held at Houston’s Metropolitan Multi-Service Center and hosted in conjunction with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Texas Regional Sports, gave local athletes a chance to run drills in cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field and wheelchair basketball while coaches measured their potential.
“I hope to make the team, of course,” Ruhl said. “I want to get some good feedback, good criticism, and see what I need to work on … see what would make me better.”
Ruhl, a double amputee for most of his life, power lifted and played football at Houston’s C.E. King High School. He’s been playing wheelchair sports for the past year but never considered a run at the national team until he heard about the Gateway for Gold event.
“I loved (wheelchair sports) as soon as I came,” Ruhl said. “I play every sport there is. I feel in love with it. Now it’s pretty much all I do.”
Ian Lawless, the high performance director for the U.S. Paralympics cycling program, was happy to see excited new athletes.
“It seems (there were) a lot of young athletes who have never tried hand cycling or have ridden a two-wheel road bike,” Lawless said. “It’s exciting to have people who are totally green, to get the experience and get that fire going.”
Lawless gave interested athletes an opportunity to do a 1-kilometer test on the bike trainer or hand-cycling trainer.
“It helps them learn how it feels to get into the racing zone,” Lawless said. “It gives us feedback on where they’re at and helps us determine their potential.
“Usually we can spot a potentially talented cyclist pretty quickly. We’re looking for people who are excited about endurance sports.”
The coaches also used the event Sunday as a way to encourage the athletes to stay involved in community sports.
“Realistically, it’s going to be the training they do in the (local) Paralympic sport clubs (that determines) whether they ever advance to that national team status,” said Blake, who led some volleyball drills before letting the athletes play a six-on-six scrimmage. “If we can encourage those (athletes) to come in, play and keep practicing then those that are not ready for the elite level, after some recreational play and some training, can get (another) look.”
Bennie Perez of Pearland, Texas, participated in the sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball drills but came to Gateway for Gold with his eyes on wheelchair racing.
“I have a goal,” Perez said. “My goal is to race the wheelchair. I think coming out today gave me a little chance to learn something about myself. I did it and I’ll leave here with a lot smiles.”
The track and field coaches had athletes try out a racing wheelchair in a 30-meter spring. Perez, who did his first 5-kilometer run the day before the Gateway to Gold event, enjoyed the opportunity.
“I can’t wear a prosthesis because of nerve pain,” Perez said. “I was worried about the pain but the adrenaline of just being able to have the opportunity to show what I can do (athletically), it was great. And looking at others who have faced more adversity than I have, it gave me a little motivation to try everything.”
U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Casey Tibbs, a two-time U.S. Paralympian in track and field, was on hand to visit with the potential athletes and share his story.
Tibbs, who lives in San Antonio, lost his right leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 2001. He chased the Paralympic dream and earned four medals — a silver medal in the pentathlon (P44) and a gold medal in the men’s 4x100 relay (T42-T46) at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, and a gold medal in the 4x100 and a bronze medal in the long jump (F42/F44) at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games — in his two Games.
“I found out about the Paralympics two years after losing my leg and I saw an opportunity,” Tibbs said. “When I found out about the Paralympics, I knew I wanted to do it.
“Had I been exposed to (Paralympic sports) maybe a little bit earlier on, known about it, who knows, maybe the path would have been a little bit easier? Fortunately, I had the drive to make it happen but not everyone is going to know (about the opportunity) if there’s not programs like this.”
Tom Glave has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He covered prep and college sports for newspapers in Missouri and Arkansas for nine years and now works part-time in the Houston area.