Adaptive Sports Open Up the Great Outdoors

Brain Injury Blog by Janet Cromer

April 27, 2011

Adaptive Sports Open Up the Great Outdoors


Now that spring has greeted us with warmer temperatures and flowering trees I want to be outdoors all day. My husband Alan and I were always nature lovers who enjoyed hiking, biking, canoeing, and kayaking. We weren’t competitive athletes, but we stayed active and had fun.

After Alan suffered a severe anoxic brain injury, he had to learn to walk again. In that big category of “learning to do everything again” came all of his motor skills. Alan eventually convinced his nephew Tom to teach him to ride a bike again.

It didn’t take long before Alan was pedaling unsteadily down the street calling out, “Look at me; I’m back in the saddle again!” Alan’s strong procedural memory for how to ride a bike had been honed by years of riding safely.

That procedural memory also came through when he started swimming at our neighborhood kiddy beach. The short strip of sand and roped-off swimming area made it safe for Alan to stroke through the water to a diving raft, then breast stroke back to shore.

As much as we enjoyed these activities, we both felt the loss of being out on the water on a summer afternoon. Three years after Alan’s brain injury, he developed Parkinson’s disease (PD). PD made everything harder because Alan’s legs were very stiff and he often lost his balance.

Around that time, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital became the first rehabilitation hospital in the US to open its own therapeutic recreation dock. Spaulding is located right on the Charles River in Boston. The staff included physical therapists and specially trained athletes who coached  participants to meet their goals. Alan received extensive treatment at SRH, so we were invited to try out the kayaks that bobbed in the sun.

Alan was elated and had no reservations about jumping right in to the program. As the official worrier and safety monitor of our marriage, I had plenty of reservations. I knew how much was at stake if he fell or capsized. And that he tended to over-rate his abilities.

Our orientation session was a revelation. I watched in awe as a young blind man smiled and headed up the river on a dual-control sailboard with a staff member. Next I saw a few staff lower a woman in a motorized wheelchair down into a motor boat, then soar into the wind.

It took three staff to bend Alan’s back and legs into a kayak. Launched from the ramp, he made a few tentative strokes as his staff companion coached from an adjacent kayak. Then Alan the Oarsman took over, dipping the blades in a smooth arc from one side to another. I marveled that he paddled as if it had been only four days, instead of four years, since he had kayaked. Alan was in heaven!

Alan was sold on the program, and as my trust built, I was too. Over time he rowed in outrigger canoe races, rode a bike with hand pedals, donned a harness to ascend the climbing wall, and kayaked many times. Most important, he made new friends who respected him as a “regular guy”, boosted his confidence, and stayed strong despite the Parkinson’s.

Our support group went on an annual nature walk/hike with a therapeutic recreation organization that provided seasoned guides to help with wheelchairs, a scavenger hunt, and a cookout.

Adaptive sports and therapeutic recreation open up a new world for people who have physical and cognitive challenges. There are year-round programs that include horseback riding, basketball, rowing, swimming, hiking, camping, skiing, and just about any sport played on land or water. These programs have become an active part of acute rehabilitation and an ongoing source of fun and skills for years later.

Do you want to try something new, or a new way of playing an old favorite game? There are many organizations waiting to welcome you. Spaulding partnered with Access Sports America to run their program. Other providers include Easter Seals and the Adaptive Sports Foundation. Check with your state Brain Injury Association or Commission on Disabilities for specific programs.

Get outdoors and have fun!

A few suggestions:

  1. Ask about the training and credentials of the staff. Do they have experience with people who have your needs and concerns? Do they have enough staff to provide 1:1 support when needed?
  2. What is the plan in case of emergency?
  3. Remember that you, as the survivor or caregiver, know what’s best. Be careful to balance safety with the craving for new or harder adventures. Don’t let anyone insist that you go beyond the limits of exhaustion or understanding.

3 responses to “Adaptive Sports Open Up the Great Outdoors”

  1. Janet Cromer says:

    Yes! Reclaiming what matters most and being grateful for the ability to do so give life zest and meaning.

  2. If you can Dream it, the Lord can help you do it!

  3. Marie G. Cooney says:

    Dear Janet,
    I was devistated when I had to give up competative sailing after a work related TBI. Now, I am proud to say 5 years post-injury, I bought my first sailboat! “Leisure sailing” may be an oxymoron for a person with a BI, because of fatigue, cognitive functioning, and other challenges. I don’t sail alone anymore, make sure there is a cell phone available, and sleep lots and lots afterwards. It is so important to reclaim our live where and whenever we can! Thanks for the great article!
    Marie G. Cooney

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.