Sylvester Fiers is the epitome of the versatile athlete: he is one of the top sprinters in the United States, a fine swimmer and an accomplished basketball player.
But he is not your everyday garden-variety outstanding athlete. Fiers is a paraplegic, and competes, for the most part, from a wheelchair.
That has not dampened the 20-year-old's desire for excellence. He is a member of the Capital Wheelchair Athletic Assocation (CWAC), a group of area sports enthusiasts who complete in swimming, basketball, track and field.
Participants are grouped in categories depending on the extent of their handicap.
CWAC operates under the auspices of New Life, Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to promote year-round wheelchair sports for Washington-area youths 10 to 21 years of age.
Fiers first played basketball for the Capital Smokers, the association's wheelchair basketball team.
"We had been playing basketball for some time and we decided we wanted something else," Fiers, who averages seven points per game as a point guard, recalled. "So, we thought we'd try track."
Fiers tried nine events: the 100-, 200-and 400-meter dash, the 800-meter run, the mile, the four-mile run, the 400-yard and mile relays and the slalom.
He is at his best in the sprints. Sports and Spokes, a bimonthly magazine for handicapped athletes, ranks him as the best wheelchair sprinter in the United States, based on times.
His times -- 20.5 seconds in the 100 meters, 40.4 seconds in the 200 meters and 1.22 minutes in the 400 meters -- qualified him for the national wheelchair sprinting championship May 27 through June 1 in Champaign, Ill.
Running in wheelchair track requires the same basic elements necessary in all sports -- conditioning and endurance.
Fiers gets in shape by doing a series of sprints -- 100, 200 and 400 meters -- on weekends with his teammates at either H.D. Woodson High (which is near his home) or Gallaudet College. During the week he lifts weights at Brentwood Recreation Center and "runs" up hills and down streets in his Southeast neighborhood.
When Fiers is not training, he works as a clerk for the U.S. Census Bureau and attends classes at the University of the District of Columbia, where he is majoring in electronics.
Bill Green, player-coach of the Capital Smokers, and Fiers have qualified in the same events. Green believes the team has a pretty good chance in the nationals this year.
"Another one of our runners, Eric Ramey, is the top miler in the country," Green said. "He is also almost guaranteed one or two championships in the nationals."
Green, a graduate of Kansas State University with a master's degree in counseling, is a counselor at Sharpe Health School, a school for children with physical handicaps and chronic illnesses, in Northwest D.C. A coach of basketball, track and swimming for nine years, he founded New Life, Inc.
"I wanted to develop a year-round sports program for wheelchair handicaps," he explained. "New Life is that development. We are supported by fundraisers and grants, and this is our ninth year.
"Right now we have basketball, swimming and track and field for about 48 young people ages 10 to 21. We plan to expand in the future if we can get the proper funding."
Green added that they have basketball games scheduled against Detroit and Chicago, the teams ranked first and second in wheelchair basketball; Detroit averages an astounding 118 points a game, Chicago 69. (Games have two 20-minute halves.) The Capital Smokers finished their last season 10-10, averaging 63 points a game.
Fiers, Ramey and the rest of CWAC are tuning up for the nationals next week. Fiers and Ramey finished first and second in the wheelchair division of the six-mile marathon held this past weekend at West Potomac Park in Northwest Washington.
Fiers remembers his last trip to the wheelchair nationals two years ago in San Jose, Calif., where he participated in the swimming events as well.
"I didn't do well at all," he said. "It wasn't so much lack of ability as much as it was the lack of proper equipment. It seemed as if everyone there had better wheelchairs than we did."
Fiers, who with his teammates is still soliciting funds for next week's trip, says he has a special reason for hoping to do better this year.
"Two years ago, I was psyched up over the fact that the nationals were being held in San Jose, Calif. This year we'll be going to Holland if we win our events at the nationals. I've never been out of the country and I'm really looking forward to it. I can't wait."