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.
“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.”
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.”