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Young athlete breaks barriers

August 09, 1997

Teen hopes other wheelchair users will compete

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

You can call Aaron Hendrickson disabled.

You can also call him champion.

Despite the fact that he can't walk, the 17-year-old Clear Spring youth recently set two national junior weightlifting records. At 123 pounds, Hendrickson bench pressed 210 pounds and powerlifted 190 pounds. He also won three other first-place medals - in the discus and javelin throws and the shotput.

"I was excited," Hendrickson said of the competition. Did he think he'd be a winner? "I was surprised," he said.

Hendrickson competed in the 16- to 18-year-old division of the Wheelchair Sports U.S.A. 1997 National Junior Wheelchair Championships in Mesa, Ariz., after qualifying at the regionals near Harrisburg, Pa.

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Hendrickson talked about his accomplishments in hopes others who use wheelchairs would learn about the sports competition.

The competition in Arizona made a lasting impression on Hendrickson and his mom Cindy, who went with him to the Valley of the Sun.

"I never competed before. I never competed against someone with the same disability as me," Hendrickson said. "They could relate to what I go through every day."

Cindy Hendrickson said there were only 185 competitors at the junior nationals.

"There should have been more," she said. "We don't think a lot of people know about it."

Hendrickson was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that eventually took his feet out from under him.

In spina bifida, part of the spinal cord is not enclosed and protected by the spine. As a result, that part of the cord and the nerves that connect to the lower part of the body don't develop.

Since birth, Hendrickson has had 13 to 15 operations. He was able to walk with the aid of canes until he was 10 years old, when his body became too heavy to support with his arms. He started using a wheelchair. Now his hips and knees are fused, and his legs are crossed in a seated position.

None of that has stopped Hendrickson. In fact, it hasn't even slowed him down.

By the time he was 14, he was lifting weights. He learned how to walk down the steps on his hands, a trick that admittedly scares the heck out of his mother.

Hendrickson swims in the backyard pool.

"I just use my arms," he explained. "It's like dragging dead weight behind you."

He recently learned to ski on a monoski at nearby Whitetail ski resort. By the third lesson he was going down the legendary slope called Black Diamond.

"I'd fall every time - eventually," he said.

In fact, Hendrickson almost missed regional and national wheelchair competition, because he kept skiing even though the monoski chair had rubbed the flesh on his hip down to the bone.

"I wish he would have said something," Cindy Hendrickson said.

"But I wanted to ski," her son replied.

Hendrickson ended up in the hospital with an infection. He got the OK to compete from his doctor just in time to hurriedly train for the regionals.

He learned about the wheelchair competition, and Sports `n Spokes, a sports magazine for wheelchair users, when he was being treated at Shriner's Hospital in Philadelphia.

The sight of her son and others with disabilities competing and socializing proved moving for Cindy Hendrickson.

She said watching 158 young people in wheelchairs doing the macarena and the chicken dance at a tourney party brought tears to her eyes.

Hendrickson's 13-year-old brother Brandon, and sisters Megan, 15, and Caitlyn, 11, all gave up ballet classes for the summer so Aaron could go to Arizona. Cindy and Eric Hendrickson said their son still wouldn't have made it there hadn't it been for help from family, friends and eight Washington County companies who sponsored his trip.

When he isn't pumping iron, swimming or skiing, Hendrickson likes to fish. He's also a history buff. At the junior nationals, he was offered an athletic scholarship by a coach at the University of Illinois, where there is a wheelchair sports program for disabled students.

Hendrickson said he might want to teach or coach after college. He would like to eventually compete in adult wheelchair competition. But he isn't really sure where the future will take him.

"We've never put any limitations on him," Cindy Hendrickson said. "If he wants to do something, we let him do it."

If there is a limit for Hendrickson, it would appear to be the sky.

For information on wheelchair sports competitions, the Hendricksons suggest area residents call Richard C. Crisafulli, Director of Recreation for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, at 617-828-2440 or 617-727-9655.

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