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Sydney next stop for Paralympians

The journey to Australia has been difficult for four area athletes.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


photo
[Courtesy of Schneider family]
Bill Schneider.
Bill Schneider spent every night of the Olympics glued to his television. He knew he would soon be in Sydney, Australia, as a member of the U.S. Paralympic team, and he wanted to soak in every minute.

"I got a little behind in my studies," said Schneider, a former King High student working on his graduate degree at Indiana University. "I couldn't stop watching. I knew I'd be there in a few weeks."

Schneider, who has cerebral palsy, will join nearly 4,000 other athletes from 125 countries for the 11th Paralympics Wednesday through Oct. 29. There are 328 members of the U.S. Paralympic team who will compete in 18 events.

Four athletes are from the Tampa Bay area. Schneider will compete in the 400 and 800 meters. Danny Andrews of Holiday (400 meters for amputees), Jennifer Jay of St. Petersburg (Boccia) and Bradley Johnson of Tampa (sitting volleyball) are also in Sydney.

All four are participating in the Paralympics for the first time. All four hope to bring back a medal. And for all four, the road to Sydney wasn't always smooth.

When Jay was born on Sept. 4, 1974, at St. Petersburg's Bayfront Medical Center, she wasn't breathing. Doctors revived her, but the lack of oxygen to her brain left her with cerebral palsy, a series of motor disorders caused by damage to the central nervous system.

She cannot use her legs, has limited use of her arms and has difficulty speaking. She uses a "Liberator," which resembles a laptop computer, to type words and a computer voice "talks" from a speaker.

For purposes of this article, Jay communicated through e-mail.

"We feel very fortunate that she survived," said her mother, Diana Jay. "Normally in a situation like that 26 years ago the technology wouldn't have been there to save her. But the doctor was unwilling to let her go and after 45 minutes she started breathing. Even back then she was a fighter."

Jay has used a wheelchair all her life. She has attended public schools equipped to handle disabled students.

At Pinellas Park High she decided to get involved in sports. She said she was tired of being wheeled in the corner during physical education class.

"As a person with a disability, other able-bodied people did turn me away from sports," Jay said. "They would tell me I couldn't play sports because I was disabled. I remember, especially in high school, all of the disabled students including myself hated P.E. class. We either sat there and did nothing or we played cards. That was the biggest turn off of all.

"If you hear "You can't play sports' long enough you start believing it. But when I started competing it was like a different person locked inside of me was let out and I learned I could play sports. I think people with disabilities should learn to listen to themselves, not others. If they really want to play sports they should go for it."

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Jennifer Jay
Jay went for it.

She started by playing for the St. Petersburg Chargers power soccer team. Later she switched to track and field, sponsored by the city of St. Petersburg.

While at a meet, Jay saw some people with her condition playing Boccia, a sport similar to lawn bowling. It involves throwing a game ball as close to a white "target" ball as possible. Scoring is determined by the placement of game balls nearest the target.

Jay decided to give it a try.

"I got killed that first year," Jay said. "But the other players told me to stick with it, that I was a good player. So I came home and said that I want to learn how to play Boccia."

Jay has represented the United States in international competitions in Vancouver, New York City and Nottingham, England.

As one of the top players in the country, she hopes to sit on the medal stand in Sydney. But she has goals well beyond that. She attends St. Petersburg Junior College and hopes to earn a degree in Therapeutic Recreation. Then she hopes to teach others with disabilities about the joy of athletics.

"Boccia means a whole lot to me," Jay said. "It has given me so many opportunities that I've never dreamed of before. I get to compete. I get to travel around the world. I get to learn how other disabled people live in other countries. And it's taught me the kind of person I want to be."

As the son of a military father, Schneider was always on the move. Born in Honolulu, Schneider has lived in California, Georgia, New York City and finally moved to Tampa when he was in the seventh grade.

Moving so much made it difficult to make friends, and his cerebral palsy didn't help. Schneider was born with his left arm limp and his left leg shorter than his right.

"I was uncoordinated growing up," Schneider said. "I could never play catch, and it took me until I was 13 to ride a bike. I wasn't the best athlete. I had to do a lot of things by myself."

One of those things was running. By the time he entered King High School, Schneider was running often. He joined the track team, and although he wasn't the fastest runner, he stuck with it.

While at a meet, Schneider was noticed by Al Orr, a track official who also works at the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department as its Director of Therapeutic Recreation. Orr has been involved with the Paralympics for 25 years, and when he saw Schneider run he knew he could compete nationally.

"Bill is one of the exceptional ones," Orr said. "He's a tremendous role model. He's a super kid and he has a great chance at a medal. You never know what other countries are going to bring, but his times are right there."

At the Paralympic Track and Field trials in June at Hartford, Conn., Schneider was a first-place finisher in the 400 and 800 meters. He ran the 400 in 59 seconds, the 800 in two minutes, 14 seconds.

Schneider, 23, plans to graduate from Indiana after the winter term with a master's in Adaptive Physical Education.

Schneider said he's looking forward to visiting the Australian beaches. That and winning a medal.

"Everybody says for me to bring home the gold," Schneider said. "That would be incredible. I've never been there before, so to bring home gold the first time would be special. The one thing I can't wait for is the opening ceremonies. There's going to be nearly 100,000 people there."

Brad Johnson's life changed forever on June 14, 1993. On a trip back to Tampa from Gainesville, where he had taken the University of Florida's Law School entrance exam, Johnson lost control of his car on a slick patch of Interstate 75.

The car hydroplaned off the road and hit some trees. His left leg below the knee was completely severed and his right leg above the knee was nearly severed.

He had become a parapalegic in a matter of seconds. He allowed himself little time for pity.

"I had my mourning stages, but they were only about 15-minute bouts," Johnson said. "I didn't give myself a chance to grieve. That's not my character. This was the new me, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. This was my new perception of reality, and you've got to have a positive attitude if you're going to accomplish anything."

Johnson, 30, didn't let his disability keep him down. He recuperated by lifting weights. He got accepted to Florida and completed his law degree.

In August of 1999, he was invited by some friends to attend the National Summer Games for Paralympic Sports in Virginia. It was there that he was introduced to sitting volleyball.

"I went there to learn how to run and throw the javelin or some other track and field sports," Johnson said. "Then I was asked to play sitting volleyball. Things just went from there."

Sitting volleyball resembles regular volleyball, except the players are literally sitting on the court. The court is smaller and the net is 3 feet high. There are six players per team, and points are awarded the same as volleyball.

One exception is that players may not leave the ground. One "cheek" must stay on the floor at all times.

"If you get "Air Butt' the point is no good," Johnson said.

Johnson found out he enjoyed the game, and he was also very good. He was asked to join the national team, which led to his participation in the Sydney games.

"I never believed that I would be in the Paralympics," Johnson said. "I'm still in disbelief. I'm not sure it's really happening."

Johnson, a freelance writer, writes for Internet sites and magazines, mostly about the gap between the parapalegic community and the "able-bodied" community.

It has been seven years since his accident, but Johnson never has looked back.

"Life is so much easier if you don't see any limits," Johnson said.

photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
Danny Andrews
Danny Andrews was 14 and a talented goalkeeper for the Hudson Footloose club soccer team. He broke his left leg during a match and complications during surgery forced doctors to amputate below the knee.

While in the hospital, Andrews received a call from Dennis Oehler, a Paralympian who lost a leg in an automobile accident but went on to win four gold medals at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul, South Korea. Oehler invited Andrews to come to Atlanta to watch him compete in the 1996 Games.

Andrews was inspired, and he went to work trying to qualify for the 2000 Games. He continued to play competitive soccer. He was the Gulf High School goalkeeper his junior and senior years.

But running was now his main focus. Fitted with a prosthetic limb, Andrews learned more and more about how to run with the prosthetic. At the trials in Connecticut, Andrews upset favorite Joe LeMar in the 800 meters with a time of 2:18.41.

He was going to Sydney.

"I think it's finally set in, but it's taken a while," Andrews said about going to the Paralympics. "I'm going for the gold. I know a lot of people didn't know who I was, but the (qualifying) race gave me a lot of confidence."

Andrews, 19, will attend the University of Miami in January. He's delayed entrance for the fall semester so he could train for the Paralympics. He plans to major in biomedical engineering, hoping one day to work in research and development of prosthetics.

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