For Charla Ramsey and Maria Wood, being handicapped is a state of mind. Paraplegics from birth, they have combined hard work and dedication to become two of the world's top wheelchair athletes.
Ramsey, 13, a "sprinter," holds the second-fastest times in the country this year in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. As the youngest member of a U.S. team that recently competed in the World Wheelchair Games in London, Ramsey won bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter runs, a silver in the 200 meters and a gold in the 1,500 meters. The 1,500-meter victory was especially remarkable because it marked the first time she participated in that event.
Wood, 20, is a starting forward on the Capital Smokers, an otherwise all-male wheelchair basketball team. She averaged 12 points and nine rebounds a game this past season.
Wood and Ramsey were selected to represent the United States in the Pan American Games in Halifax, Nova Scotia, later this month. The two will compete against other top wheelchair athletes from North America.
Ramsey and Wood are members of New Life Inc., a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that provides wheelchair sports programs for physically handicapped youths in the Washington area.
New Life was founded in 1971 by Bill Greene, a paraplegic as a result of a 1961 shooting accident, and his wife Brenda. He does much of the coaching and recruiting, and Brenda handles administrative and public relations duties out of their home-office in Southeast Washington. Bill Greene will coach the U.S. team's men sprinters at the Pan American Games.
New Life started as a recreational program for handicapped adults and veterans. But a lack of participation by adults prompted the Greenes to shift the program's direction.
"We started out with a basketball program intially," Brenda Greene said. "When it became apparent that the adults and veterans were not that interested, we decided to gear New Life toward the kids. In 1973, we added track and field and the program really became solid."
New Life serves 85 youths, age 7 to 20, on four teams representing Northern Virginia, the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Depending on their handicaps, the athletes are grouped in five classifications: Classes 1A, B and C are quadraplegics; class 2 are paraplegics with high-level paralysis in the trunk area; class 3 have medium-level paralysis in the lower torso and the hips; class 4 have low-level paralysis of the legs and class 5 are amputees.
Bill Greene was an athlete at Dunbar and Ballou high schools before the shooting accident. He attended Emporia (Kan.) State University, where he received an undergraduate degree in business and a master's in psychology and counseling. It was there he met Brenda, and they developed the idea of New Life.
"After we changed the direction of the program, everything fell into place," said Greene, an elementary school counselor at the Sharpe Health School in Northwest. "The kids have really taken to the program well.
"In the fall, we will be serving over 100 kids in wheelchair sports. Our program is the only successful wheelchair sports program for children in the United States that provides year-round organized wheelchair sports. By starting our kids out at 7 or 8 years old, they can develop into world-class wheelchair athletes by the time they reach their teens. Our goal is to produce the top wheelchair athletes in the world right here in the Washington area. We are on our way. It's just a matter of time."
Athletes competing in track and field are members of the New Life's Capital Wheelchair Athletic Club. The four local teams compete, and winners and top performers advance to regional and national competition. Ramsey's scores in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter events at the nationals in June in Marshall, Minn., qualified her for the World Wheelchair Games.
Ramsey, of Anacostia, recorded her best times ever in the nationals. Her times of 22.0 in the 100-meter event and 41.03 in the 200-meter were second only to the winner, who is nine years older and holds the world's records for the events, according to Sports and Wheels, a publication that ranks the times and performances of wheelchair track and field athletes worldwide.
This year was Ramsey's second time in national competition and her first in international. She generally faces older and more experienced women in the meets.
"I'm too excited to be scared" of the competition, Ramsey said before leaving for London. "Of course, I'm going out and do my best, but I'm really looking forward to the trip and having some fun."
Ramsey, a class 4 paraplegic, trains three to four hours a day, five days a week on a track at Gallaudet College and participates in local races on weekends to build strength and stamina. Greene, who is her coach, said Ramsey has the necessary ingredients to become the best in the world.
"She has power, speed and the mental attitude to become world class," he said. "She's very small, but she's stocky and strong. Her biggest asset is her ability to get out of the hole real fast. She does that as well as any female I've ever seen in wheelchair sprints. The scary thing is that she is only 13 and is already beating women much older than she is."
Pat Clancy, a sponsor of the U.S. teams in London, was impressed with Ramsey's showing. "We were all amazed at how well she handled herself in the meet over here," Clancy said in a telephone interview from London. "She is very mature, and with her talent and ability, we expect her to be a real star in the future."
Wood started playing for the Capitol Smokers because she was better than any of the other girls in competition. She has systematic rheumatoid arthritis, which forced her to wear a cast when she was 14. It was then that she learned to play basketball.
"I had gotten bored with the cast on my leg, so one day I just went out to shoot around," recalled Wood, a dispatcher for Capital Towing. "I fell in love with the game of basketball. I've always been tall for my age, so coach Greene asked me to try out for the basketball team."
Wood comes from a family of 14 in Southeast Washington, and five of her brothers play basketball. She said playing with them helped her make the Capital Smokers team. Her play as a forward and center on the team so impressed coaches on the 10 teams the Capital Smokers face annually on their tour that she was selected to the U.S women's team for the Pan American Games.
"She can do things that few, if any, females can do in wheelchair basketball," Greene said. "Playing against men has made her into a complete player. In addition to dribbling, shooting and passing so well, she has the ability to rebound because of those long arms she has. It doesn't hurt that she is 5-11. She is going to have a definite advantage over the women she will be playing against."
This year is the second time that New Life has been represented in international competition. Sylvester Fiers made the 1980 U.S. Wheelchair Track team and set a world record in the 400 meters.
Greene is confident Wood and Ramsey will measure up in the Pan American Games. "We aren't just going over there for the trip," he said. "Our kids are going to blow everything away. They know they will dominate. They've worked hard and paid their dues. Now it is time for them to collect their rewards."