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Disabled girl lifts spirits of TJ, family

January 21, 2003|by TIM KOELBLE

I am gladly relinquishing my space this week of personal opinion in favor of using it for recognition.

By and large, we usually fail seeing 'outside the box' the lives those of us are fortunate enough to live without any disablilities.

While there are many individuals who suffer in this world, I want to bring to your attention one little gal that really caught my eye recently when I was assigned to cover the Thomas Johnson-Frederick boys basketball game.

While the teams were back in their lockers getting instruction prior to tipoff, several team managers were on the floor shooting.

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She had braces from the knees down. She was dribbling the ball efficiently. She was shooting the ball even more efficiently. And the ball was going through the hoop.

She's Gail Gaeng, all of her 10 years of age and the youngest of six children in the Brian and Roxie Gaeng household that includes two of her brothers, Drew and Derek. Drew is the starting TJ point guard and Derek is on the freshman team.

The Gaeng family is sports-oriented. Mom and Dad are accomplished golfers, oldest sister Erin is at Division I Elon College on a soccer scholarship and sisters Paige and Claire play elementary basketball and soccer.

You think Gail was going to be subdued with her paralysis-at-birth setback?

"She picked up a basketball at a young age," her father said. "We've never discouraged her from doing anything. She's amazing. She'll fight for everything when it comes to sports."

And what she does is truly amazing.

As an elementary student at Yellow Springs, Gail plays in the 9-10 division for Clover Hill in the Frederick County Youth Association and lately scored 12 of her team's 25 points. She played soccer up until last year and still swims for the FAST Club in Frederick.

However, you can always find her at a TJ basketball game, home or away.

"Gail is like TJ's mascot for all the teams," said boys head coach Tom Dickman. "You can usually hear the parents say 'Here comes Gail's team.'"

Gail's mother explains that her paralysis is due mainly to what is believed to be a nerve condition from birth.

"We originally thought it was from the waist down, but she gained movement down to the knees," Roxie Gaeng said. "Her movements have been gradual. She wears the braces because they act like stilts and are able to keep her upright."

"She's always had a ball in her hand and when I coached youth basketball she was always like my assistant coach," Brian said. "She can have an intelligent conversation with anyone about sports, and I mean in-depth things."

"She's so active she has broken the braces," her mom said, noting she even broke the femur in a leg once.

As for her early childhood memories, Gail notes she's most fond of both Drew and Derek "for making their basketball teams. I'm really happy for them."

She also had the opportunity the first time she stepped on a basketball floor to meet Michael Jordan in person, which she said was to "my delight and pretty cool." Jordan aside, Gail says her favorite athlete is Allen Iverson, not for what he says and does off the floor, but "he is a good shooter and can handle the basketball."

Talking with Gail, it's apparent she's well on her way to getting her ducks in a row.

"I either want to become a doctor (because I'm used to them) or a referee, coach or trainer in basketball," Gail said.

To Gail, and those that live with the desire to compete through a disability, I wish all of you the best in your drive to succeed, no matter what the obstacle.

Maybe we all should take heed.




Tim Koelble is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at koelble@herald-mail.com

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