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In the game - People with spinal injuries work up a sweat in first-ever wheelchair whiffle ball match
In the game - People with spinal injuries work up a sweat in first-ever wheelchair whiffle ball match

Bases were loaded in the top of the third inning in a fierce game of whiffle ball played on a recent sun-washed evening.

Organizers had staked off the parking lot at Community Medical Center's Rehabilitation Institute of Montana for the inaugural game arranged for people with spinal cord injuries.

The two teams - "Rolling Thunder" and "Blazing Saddles" - took on the challenges of the wind, uneven pavement and other hazards for an irreverent game. Rules were invented on the spot.

Outdoor recreation is a boon to many, but is especially beneficial for people with disabilities who spend so much time indoors and often feel cooped up and confined, said Molly Blair, gym coordinator for the New Directions Wellness Center affiliated with the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Montana.

"It is extremely important for people with physical disabilities to get outside," Blair said. "It gives them a better quality of life, self-confidence and overall health benefits."

As the warm night beckoned at Community Medical Center's parking lot, three members of the monthly support group teamed up with about a dozen occupational therapists and physical therapists. Everyone rode in wheelchairs on the "diamond" in the parking lot marked off with orange caution tape.

"It's fun and absolutely revitalizing," said James Horinek, 51, whose injuries stemmed from a herniated disk. "I really don't think about being handicapped when I'm playing the game."

Greg Howard, 26, another member of the support group, said he hasn't had this much fun since he was injured in a logging accident last November.

"It's a blast and the most fun I've had in a real long time," said Howard. "I don't get a chance to do this stuff anymore."

The support group, which meets on the third Tuesday of every month, has offered camaraderie and a range of activities since it was started more than a decade ago.

In the summer, they've gone fishing using adaptive technology, and held barbecues. They have plans for a horseshoe pitch and bocce games at their annual picnic in August.

In the winter, the meetings typically are indoors. They've held educational forums on stem cell research and Social Security benefits. They've also had speakers give advice on traveling with spinal cord injuries and upper-extremity preservation for people using wheelchairs.

There is a core group of about five to 10 members and about 28 people on the mailing list. The members range in age from 18 to 60, said Greg Salisbury, a physical therapist.

Blair said Missoula has some activities for people with disabilities. Some of her clients go swimming at the city's Splash Montana, while others take their powered wheelechairs along the Kim Williams Trail.

"Just being inside can be depressing. As soon as spring comes and the sun comes out, their moods lift and they are happier," Blair said. "Just getting out in the sun and being physically active is important."

Blair said she's spoken with several students about starting a wheelchair basketball team in Missoula in the next six months or so.

Jill Miller, 31, a physical therapist who helped organize the whiffle ball game with her colleague, Kirsten Kuhnle, said they wanted to do something fun outdoors.

"Baseball and softball are too serious," Miller said. "I mean, who ever practices at whiffle ball?"

At the top of the third inning, Howard, wearing a red baseball cap, pitched the ball for his "Rolling Thunder" team.

Horinek hit a solid grounder and revved up his powered wheelchair all the way to second base - the limit per the group's impromptu rules.

"Look, he's taken the bat with him, just in case someone gets in his way," Salisbury joked.

On the sidelines, near orange coolers filled with water and juice, family members and one support group member cheered on the team. Several people munched on popcorn and baked treats.

Kuhnle and Miller said they might make the whiffle ball game an annual or quarterly event, depending on the group's wishes.

The newly disabled often feel limited, as if their worlds were collapsing. The therapists said they try to educate patients how to participate in their former passions.

With adaptive technologies, people with spinal cord injuries can still enjoy the outdoors and engage in recreational activities, she said. Many still go downhill skiing, fishing, hunting or bicycle riding, she said.

"It's a matter of knowing your resources and being creative," she said. "You can continue to be who you were before the injury."

David Copenhaver, 22, another support group member on the "Rolling Thunder" team, said he enjoyed the game. He also goes fishing at Seeley Lake and does other recreational activities.

He said the last time he played whiffle ball, he was in grade school.

Before his injuries, Howard said he walked in the woods - part of the reason he ventured into logging for six years. He also played Frisbee golf and went tubing on the Blackfoot River.

With his physical therapy, he is still able to walk. On the six-month anniversary of his accident, he could take 50 to 70 steps with a walker.

"That brightens my spirits more than anything else," Howard said. "I've accepted the fact that it will never be like it was, but I know there are still possibilities."

Reporter Pamela J. Podger may be reached at 523-5241 or Pamela.podger@missoulian.com.

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