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Disabled Men Take on W. Va. Rapids

November 30, 1997

LANSING, W.Va. (AP) _ The frothing waters swirl and splash around Frank Vanik and Mike King, tossing their rubber raft toward the last big rapid on the lower Gauley River. It’s dubbed Pure Screaming Hell, and for good reasons.

Vanik and King have heard tales of people dying on this river. Their guide, Rob Dobson, has told them that if they, or any of the other six rafters, are pitched overboard, they must ``swim like an alligator is after you, nipping at your calves.″

There’s only one problem. King and Vanik do not have the use of their legs. If they fall overboard, they must depend on their arms and bright yellow life vests to pull them out of the current.

``Back left, forward right!″ Dobson barks out to the rafters. ``Forward, forward ... forward ahead!″

The rafters are members of Baltimore Adapted Recreation & Sports. It is one of Sports USA’s 81 national nonprofit chapters that helps disabled people participate in activities other people often take for granted.

Vanik, 30, a mechanical engineer from Baltimore, found out he had multiple sclerosis eight years ago.

``There’s a lot more to life than getting up in the morning and getting dressed and going to work,″ Vanik said. ``Something like rafting is a thrill, and it’s a life-fulfilling experience.″

King, 39, of Atglen, Pa., lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 1978.

Then, he and Vanik met Pamela Lehnert. As a recreational therapist and the program’s volunteer director, she organized the rafting trip.

``It gets the people out of their wheelchairs and for a little bit of time, they might be able to forget that that wheelchair exists,″ Lehnert said. ``It’s one of those sports where you can do with everybody else. You can do it at the same level.″

Lenhert also organizes hand cycling, scuba diving, sailing, water and snow skiing trips, in addition to daily activities such as basketball and racquetball.

From her viewpoint, it’s unfair that disabled athletes have to pay so much so they, too, can have fun. For able-bodied skiers, Lehnert estimated the average cost at about $600 for skis, clothing and boots. The cost for one disabled ski, equipped with a seat, is about $2,000. Then there are sport wheelchairs that range from $2,800 and hand cycles that start at about $1,500.

Still, Lehnert said, companies are beginning to manufacture recreational equipment for disabled people. In addition, the rest of society is becoming more aware about disabled people’s abilities.

``Society as a whole has improved largely. Disabled people are in the daily rush of life,″ Lehnert said. ``They have full-time jobs, drive cars and have families, where as before they were hidden away. Their abilities are coming more to the forefront instead of them being seen as all of these poor, pitiful crippled people.″

Vanik and King did not have to paddle on the rafting trip, but it didn’t matter. The pair invited the foaming 59-degree water to drench them.

Later, they were the first ones overboard to swim a mild rapid. They also enjoyed a ``power lounge″ in the sun while drifting through calm pools or giving Dobson a hard time about his old rafting guide jokes.

Dobson, who has been rafting West Virginia’s rivers for 10 years, said whitewater rafting is not for everyone. But he wants to give everyone that option.

He began the pilot rafting program last year for disabled athletes. All physically and mentally disabled people must be screened, he said, to determine which trip will bring the highest ``fun factor.″

For Vanik, the lower Gauley was just the ticket. Before multiple sclerosis developed, he was an avid kayaker and whitewater rafter.

``It was a wild ride. It felt just like I remembered it before I had MS,″ Vanik said. ``If you are on a raft in a Class IV rapid, it feels the same whether you’re handicapped or not. It doesn’t change just because your legs don’t work anymore.″

Although he has never attempted to take challenged athletes on the upper Gauley’s advanced raging rapids, Dobson said King is the No. 1 candidate for the trip.

And King has proved he’s ready for it. After his motorcycle accident, he competed from 1989 to 1992 on the U.S. track team for paraplegics. His event was the pentathlon, a five-event race equivalent to the triathlon. He later put 5,000 miles on his wheelchair in the summer of 1985 when he rolled from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Washington, D.C.

King also parasails, scuba dives, snow skis and, yes, even hops on motorcycles when given the chance. His next planned adventure: skydiving.

``I tell people I don’t believe in the word can’t,″ King said. ``The biggest thing that made me want to do the trip from Alaska was people who told me I’d never make it.″

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