Helping train the next Paralympians

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Ryan Chalmers first fell in love with track and field at an event hosted by wheelchair and ambulatory sports program, the Rochester Rookies.

He recalls athletes at the starting line, the starter gun going off, and professional wheelchair racer Scott Hollenbeck whizzing past.

“I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” says Chalmers, who is now the program director at the very program which gave him his start.

Born with spina bifida, Chalmers does not have full use of his legs.The Rochester Rookies event opened up new possibilities for him; Chalmers competed at Illinois University, won a bronze medal at the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field trials in the 1,500-meter run, and trekked across the country by wheelchair.

During that time, he connected with Hollenbeck, who also is a disability sports advocate and helped motivate Chalmers well past their first encounter, and with Joann Armstrong, a wheelchair athlete who founded the Rochester Rookies program in 1976. 

Ryan Chalmers with Joann Armstrong, who founded the Rochester Rookies program in 1976. (Photos: Rochester Rookies)

“Joann took the time to come to personally speak with my family about getting involved and I was lucky enough to go down this life-changing path,” Chalmers says.

Since taking over the Rochester Rookies, which is affiliated with the disability-led, nonprofit Center for Disability Rights, Chalmers has faced continuing challenges with operating the 40-year-old program. It endures with the charity of the Rochester community, a long tradition of access, and a fair amount of luck, he says.

Most recently, the Rochester Rookie program was able to send four athletes to the week-long national sport championship, 2022 Junior Nationals in Denver. The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Legacy Fund for Youth Sports came to its aid through the Rochester Area Community Foundation, offering a grant that topped $12,000. At the championship, the team members, between the ages of 9 and 20, each beat a personal best time and came home with eight gold, seven silver, and four bronze medals in track, field and swimming categories.

“Junior nationals is the last step before international competition,” Chalmers says. But even as exciting as that step is, “it’s fantastic for me to hear the excitement and pride in the coaches (who were also able to attend with the grant) I talked with.”

Aside from those standout athletes, Rochester Rookies typically has 15 to 20 participants ranging in age from 5 to 23 at weekend practices, something Chalmers finds important.

“As a young kid, now you can see a 23-year-old driving their own car, in their own wheelchair, seeing the possibilities that exist,” he says. “In school, they might be the only one in a wheelchair in their class. Here, you feel like you can be yourself and gain some confidence and independence.”

Rochester Rookies typically has 15 to 20 participants ranging in age from 5 to 23 at weekend practices.

Such programs are hard to find. One Rochester Rookie, for example, travels from Utica to participate.

“That’s three hours driving for a two-hour practice with another three hours’ drive back. That’s a full day for them on a weekend day when there are probably other important events happening,” Chalmers says. “But there’s nothing else in their area; we’re the closest opportunity.”

Chalmers wishes the program’s success could be replicated in other cities, but the Rochester Rookies is unique in its ability to endure.

While challenges of accessibility, affordability, and outreach were heightened during the pandemic, there has also been encouraging progress in recent years. Beyond the Ralph Wilson grant, support from Nazareth College has allowed the Rochester Rookies to expand practice facilities and dates past the school year. Donations from the Golisano Foundation, Wegmans, and other individuals and organizations have helped pay for racing wheelchairs, which can cost up to $3,500. Chalmers hopes the program can expand to include as many as 30 athletes next year.

Ultimately, whether it is track and field, basketball, or another non-academic activity, Chalmers views expanding opportunities as a critical aspect of his work.

“Maybe basketball is the only thing offered, but you don’t like basketball. (Wheelchair athletes) have as much right to do the things they like as a different athlete,” Chalmers says. “It’s really about giving them a chance to choose what they want to do, what makes them the most happy.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

One thought on “Helping train the next Paralympians

  1. Heart warming,…to say the least. Organizing this type of a support effort takes effort and a “can-do” drive. There are always individuals, businesses and dedicated volunteers who make it all happen. Nothing gets in the way, nothing stops them from reaching there goal, their mission. That mission is for the just and good. There are always certain names associated with such activity. Wegmans and Tom Golisano,…those two come up often. There is so much Rochester benefits from with those two among all the others, unnamed, who are the ones volunteering to make things happen. Kudos to all.

    My canoeing partner, Bruce Ashby and I were involved in a Special Olympics fund raiser many years ago. We crossed Lake Ontario in a canoe, which was the first recorded crossing. We did it for the benefit of the Special Olympics, another fine organization. We completed the crossing in 17 hours or so. More important we raised some funding for the International Special Olympics then was held at Brockport State College. It also created attention to the event. Both of us ran track in the day, 120 low hurdles. That said we decided to watch the 100 yard “dash”. There was a crowd at the fence but we managed to squeeze in and get a spot close to the finish line. We heard the gun go off and expected them to wiz by at any moment. After some time passed, we wondered what happened. Then minutes later (seconds in track and field) the athletes came by. While heart warming to see the cheering and encouraging it was also heart wrenching. There was one athlete who was draped over his wheelchair and he had everything he could do to push the wheel chair and keep moving. The crown cheered him on. At one point he appeared to be stalled, exhausted. His brother came onto the track and he was in uniform, home for the event his brother had entered. He took off his cover and placed it on his brothers head and then cheered him on with kindness and encouragement. Both of us were moved. As he finished we glanced over at one anther,….drained emotionally from the experience. We had tears running down our face as we quietly walked back to the car. We didn’t say a word, just walked. It was not what we expected as track athletes. We both remember and when the “hat” gets passed around for financial support,…we dig deep.

    We also rode our bicycles from Rochester to Baton Rouge. Over a hundred miles a day for the benefit of the Special Olympics. That netted some $27,000 for the cause. Heart warming to say the least. If this moves you,….pick you organization and,…dig deep.

    Semper Fi.

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