At a recent soccer practice of the Columbia County Fireballs, Ryan Tharp and John Story were freewheeling along with the other team members. When practice was over, though, Ryan and John could walk away.
Ryan, a senior at Evans High School, and John, a senior at Greenbrier High School, are doing their senior research projects on adaptive sports. Seated in wheelchairs for a practice game, the students experienced the competition from the perspective of their disabled teammates.
Ryan, whose senior project is on adapted sports and advances in special education, was on the sidelines during the first practice. When the team needed another player for a scrimmage, she hopped into a chair and has been a player at every practice since.
"It's a lot harder than it looks," she said. "My shoulders were sore for two days after that. I had no idea up till then that it took so much effort."
John's senior project is about teaching children with disabilities how to play sports and benefit from it, he said. He began working with the Fireballs last year to earn community-service hours he needed for the National Honor Society and decided to continue this year with his senior project.
"Not being in a wheelchair, all that pushing with your arms gets you tired," said John, the son of Richard Story and Cheryl Hardy. "The first time I played in a wheelchair, my head hurt the next day because I fell backwards. My arms were sore, and when I went back to practice the next day I figured out why they hurt."
Ryan's interest in special education began when her mother, Shirley Tharp, worked with a class at Martinez Elementary School.
"It's amazing to watch what they can do. You can't judge these kids by the way they look; they can do so much more," said Ryan, who plans to study biology at the University of Georgia. "They are smart, funny, they love other people, and they are fun to hang out with."
Watching wheelchair soccer, she said, is just as exciting as watching able-bodied athletes play. Though she said she may have all the research she needs for her project, she plans to follow the team until the end of the soccer season and into basketball season.
John, who hopes to become an engineer, said what has struck him most about working with the team members is how important it is to them.
"It's not like they can get out and go meet other people," he said. "That's their social gathering, where they meet and have fun and talk. After talking to some of the players, they say the Fireballs is their life."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.