Varsity Letter: A Good Plane Trip That Never Left the Ground

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hey, Nick, let's get together and watch some college football Saturday.

Sorry, can't do it, man. Going to the airport. The lacrosse team is going to try to pull an airplane.

Oh, okay. What? Pull an airplane?

These were the types of conversations Paul VI boys' lacrosse player Nick Carpenter had last week in the days leading up to the plane pull that took place Saturday as part of the Dulles Day Festival.

Groups of as many as 25 participants, most of them from businesses, raised at least $1,000 for the Special Olympics for the opportunity to wrap their hands around a rope and try to pull a 164,000-pound A310 Airbus 12 feet in the shortest amount of time.

It's essentially a tug of war, with the aircraft not pulling back. It already has a distinct size advantage.

Of the 50 or so groups to pull this year, Paul VI boys' lacrosse was the only high school sports team entered. With most of the older Panthers playing at a tournament in Annapolis, it was up to the younger guys -- and a few PVI parents recruited on site to round out the team -- to do the heavy lifting, er, pulling, on the gorgeous fall afternoon.

Wearing customized Paul VI T-shirts with an "Athletes Pulling For Athletes" motto, the Panthers looked a little uneasy as they waited for their turn on the tarmac behind cargo buildings 5 and 6. After all, how do you train for a plane pull?

"It's definitely going to be hard," Carpenter said with a laugh as he surveyed the scene, with hundreds of spectators and other pulling teams ringed around the competition area. "We definitely want to get it somewhere. We're aiming for just a few feet."

The Panthers might have surprised themselves. Even though they were one of the lighter teams entered, topping out at 3,645 pounds when they all climbed on a scale for a mass weigh-in, they managed to pull the plane 12 feet in 10.543 seconds, the fastest time among teams of comparable weight.

The idea was to raise money for the charity -- the Panthers collected $2,990, the fourth-most of any team -- but the players benefited, too. That 10-second plane pull, and the minutes spent milling around before and after for a team photo and weigh-in, was time well spent for guys who, in some cases, will be teammates for the next four years.

"I learned that they know how to work as a team," freshman Will Shourds said. "We were all doing the same thing -- pulling, pulling and never stopping. Because if you stop, then you lose your momentum."

"I just think it's team-building at its best," junior Robert Short said. "It shows how much we care for something like that and how much we care for each other."

Working with Special Olympians is nothing new to Paul VI students, many of whom volunteer as peer mentors in the Fairfax school's Options program, for students with intellectual disabilities. Lacrosse team member Short did so last year.

"I've kind of had a positive outlook on life ever since," he said. "I just got a lot more respect for everybody. [Options students] are so friendly to everybody they meet. They come up to you every single day and give you a hug, give you a high-five."

Paul VI Coach Vic Goeller, who taught special-needs students for five years at Huntingtown High School, had a similar life-altering experience when he was in college in the early 1990s.

One of his professors, in a sign language class, was heavily involved in the Special Olympics and offered extra credit to any volunteers who would work a Special Olympics event at the Naval Academy.

Goeller said that when he showed up, he was more interested in the bonus points than in the good deed. They made him a designated hugger at the finish line. He was required to stay an hour. He stayed all day.

"It was very moving for me, especially as an athlete myself playing lacrosse in college," Goeller said, "to see how important it was to them to compete. It really made an impression on me as far as what was important in life and what wasn't.

"For private school kids, sometimes their community is very small. So I'm just trying to expand their community a little bit and show that it's bigger than themselves."

And easier to move than an A310 Airbus.

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams with comments or story ideas at williamsp@washpost.com.


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