Growing up, Ashley Thomas was told the same frustrating thing: No. You can’t. You’re too high-risk.
Thomas, 53, has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. When she was younger, she was told by the YMCA that she couldn’t swim. As an adult, she encountered more of the same: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, she recalls, insurance companies charged lower premiums to those who regularly exercised.
“No one would let me participate,“ she says. “I was too high-risk.”
In the early 2000s, when Thomas was in her late 30s, she connected with someone online who taught her how to race in a 5K without burning out her shoulders. There had been a void in her life, and now it was filled by the physical exercise that had been denied her for decades.
Today, Thomas is executive director of Bridge II Sports, a Durham-based nonprofit that helps children and adults who, like her, have a physical difference, play sports and exercise. When she isn’t paddling a kayak or training for a marathon, Thomas can be found hard at work ensuring people who want to play sports can, despite wheelchairs, impaired vision or muscular dystrophy.
She knows from experience that sports and exercise can be life-changing.
“I ended up discovering the joy of a cardio workout,” she says. She still remembers the first time a good workout brought on an endorphin rush. “That was like magic when I had that first experience, and I was in my late 30s. I was like, ‘Man – I’ve been missing out!’ ” There was full-body satisfaction, there was stress relief, and she was hooked. Everyone carries stress on some level, she says, and those with mobility constraints may have a harder time unloading it if they believe exercise isn’t an option.
There’s also a social element. “So much of our world is about sports, and when you are that one who was told ‘no’ or ‘you can’t,’ you just can’t be there, so you have no way to identify,” Thomas says.
Finding a sport you love and can participate in means connecting with a whole community of other participants — you belong, and you know it. “You have a disability and it is a character trait, but it is not what defines you,” she says.
Indeed, at Bridge II Sports’ annual events, its sports that comes first. NBA and notable college basketball players, for example, play the August Madness fundraiser. Very quickly they stop seeing wheelchairs and start seeing kids who, like any kids, just want to play ball. Bridge II Sports’ Valor Games is for veterans and service members, and Thomas proudly reports that the local model has become the national one.
Some athletes active in the Valor Games have gone on to join non-adaptive teams like cycling groups.
“Yes, they might be in a hand cycle, but they’re with everybody else,” she says. It’s creating community, she says; “It’s people you hang with.”
Still, there’s work to be done. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act is 25 years old, not all places are as accessible as they can be. Lake Crabtree, for example, is perfect for parakayaking, since it doesn’t allow motorboats. But the bathrooms, she found, weren’t accessible. Soon those will be fixed, and soon the lake will have an accessible dock, all because of Bridge II Sports.
The organization also needs monetary donations. Grants don’t tend to pay for staffing, she says, and Bridge II Sports’ adaptive sports program leaders require extensive, expensive training.
“The other thing we did get done successfully this year was we did get a bill passed in the North Carolina legislature to allow us to go into public schools and introduce adaptive sports everyone could play,” Thomas says. “That is our big thing. We are hoping that we get the ability to start in January.”
Looking forward, she pictures the student sitting on the sidelines, the one who’s always been told “you can’t.”
That kid will finally get to play.
Bridge II Sports
4122 Bennett Memorial Road, Suite 105
Durham, N.C. 27705
Contact: Kellie Biesecker, 866-880-2742
Description: Bridge II Sports is a nonprofit organization with a mission to create opportunities for children and adults who are physically challenged to play team and individual sports by providing equipment, developing teams and coaching, and thereby helping them discover tenacity, confidence, self-esteem and the joy of finding the player within.
Donations needed: Donations support programs and events. Even small donations help support a scholarship for a participating athlete.
Volunteers needed: We are always looking for willing volunteers to help out with our programs and events. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.