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Boy, 12, won't let disease stop him

July 23, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Boy, 12, won't let disease stop him



CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Cerebral palsy has contorted Michael Smith's young hands, so he plays sports video games at home with his left foot.

Sometimes, he wears a sophisticated voice-controlled squirt gun around his head that can extinguish a candle - or addle his dog Biscuit - from several feet away.

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He dreams of being the head coach of the Washington Redskins.

Like his two older brothers, Michael, 12, has typical adolescent interests, but because his weak muscles keep him in a wheelchair, he pursues them in a different way.

For example, Michael likes to bowl. He doesn't throw his 16-pound bowling ball; he pushes it from a ramp that he aims at the pins. In a league of about 250 able-bodied peers, Michael averages about 124, second in his age group. His high game after six years in the league is 168.

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From July 14 to 16, Michael competed in a series of outdoor games at the International Sports Jamboree for the Disabled in Parkersburg, W.Va.

The jamboree complements the Special Olympics, which are for mentally retarded athletes.

The International Sports Jamboree for the Disabled offers modified events for visually impaired teenagers or those in wheelchairs.

This year, there were 32 participants from West Virginia and 14 from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Canada.

In some events, members of those groups work together. One is a "pilot race," where teens in wheelchairs give directions as their visually impaired partners push the chairs through a slalom course.

Several events for the visually impaired use noises. Basketballs, horseshoe stakes, Frisbees and softballs emit beeps.

There is a 40-yard race in which the contestants wear harnesses that support them and lead them along a guy wire.

There's no falling, said Michael's father, Rick. Kids can run as fast as they can and "feel the wind in their faces," he said.

The wheelchair competitions are also a mix of races, tosses and scoring games.

Competing in his second jamboree, Michael won a first place for a slalom race, was second in both a 40-yard dash and a relay and finished third in a pilot race.

Everyone get a medal and everyone has fun, said Rick Smith. "It's designed for children who fell in the cracks," he said.

The jamboree is sponsored by the Bell Atlantic-West Virginia Telephone Pioneers. The local chapter raised $325 to send Michael, his parents and his close friend Danny Saum, according to Pioneers member Carolyn Hofe of Martinsburg.

She said that she and her husband Joe, who are both retired, have helped with the jamboree for about 12 years. They've seen kids come in as 12-year-olds, the minimum age, and stop competing as 20-year-olds, the maximum cutoff.

"They become part of your life," she said.

Hofe said Michael has a "great attitude" and is blessed with parents who are "seeing that he does everything he can do."

The weather was hot at this year's jamboree, so squirt guns were popular, particularly Michael's.

Beth Smith, Michael's mother, saw the gun in an advertisement about five years ago and finally found it in a toy store in Winchester, Va.

It wraps around the top of his head. A green tube sits in front of his mouth. Wearing an orange Baltimore Orioles jersey and baggy beige shorts, Michael calls out "fire!" several times. The gun should react, but it doesn't.

Finally, he blows lightly. A thin stream of water streaks out.

Beth Smith is involved in an organization called West Virginia Assistive Technology System, which looks for new products for disabled children to use. Ideas are shared at Camp Gizmo, which is held at the Romney School for the Deaf and Blind.

Being in a wheelchair doesn't preclude Michael from normal, mischievous fun. His mother will bring Michael and both of his wheelchairs to a department store. Danny will sit in the other one and the boys will horse around in the aisles.

Next year, Michael will attend Charles Town Junior High. Danny and Mark Andrews, another friend and occasional bodyguard, will go to Shepherdstown Junior High. Michael wanted to be with his best friends, but said that he'll manage because he'll have other friends at his new school.

As pride kicks in, Beth Smith shows off a picture of Michael's recent graduation from T.A. Lowery Elementary in Charles Town. She also pulls out a poem Michael and a friend wrote for the occasion: "I came, I saw, I completed/I am flying unconfined/I am swifter than a falcon/I leave the wind behind/I am swooping, I am swirling/blazing through the sky/tonight."

Michael endures these parental bragging moments with patience, and even seems to enjoy them.

As each new anecdote about him begins, he looks down and slightly ahead. He listens. When the payoff of the story arrives, Michael, his straight brown hair brown hair brushed to the side, tilts his head back and a wide toothy grin erupts.

Asked what he'd liked to do when he's an adult, Michael replied, "Sell the house, buy an RV and (go on a) road trip."

He comes back with a more serious answer later: Study coaching in college.

Rick Smith said that Michael is inspired by Miami Dolphins' kicking coach Doug Blevins, who also has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. But Michael said he'll only settle for being a head coach.

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