Originally created 01/18/06

These athletes win, regardless of the final score



This basketball game was a little different.

The sound of tennis shoes squeaking on the floor was replaced by the thud of wheelchairs banging together as players went for the ball. There also were cheers and applause, and referees' whistles.

When the buzzer sounded ending the two-game series at Aiken Technical College on Saturday, the Walton Bulldogs of Augusta had lost both games to the Spartanburg Pistons.

This sport, however, isn't about the score at the end of a game, said Alan Washington, who plays on the wheelchair basketball team sponsored by Walton Rehabilitation Hospital. The team is part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, South Carolina Division III.

"It's about enjoying yourself," he said.

Despite losing 47-29 and 59-27 to the Pistons, the Bulldogs will play in the state Division III conference tournament Feb. 4-5 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Mr. Washington, who was injured nearly 20 years ago when a crane cradle fell on him aboard a Navy ship, has been playing wheelchair basketball for more than 10 years. Several of his co-workers at UPS in Aiken attended Saturday's games.

Mr. Washington said sports were an important part of his life growing up.

"I played basketball in high school and ran track," he said.

Now, he also plays golf and tennis from a wheelchair.

Judie Thompson, an occupational therapist at Walton, is a coordinator for BlazeSports America, a national sports organization for people with physical disabilities. She said there is a growing list of sports for disabled athletes.

"Power soccer is next," she said. "Wheelchair tennis is going on on Mondays. Golf starts up in March, and swimming is ongoing."

There's also a rugby team for disabled athletes, Ms. Thompson said.

The sports are for any adult in the area with a disability, she said. They do not have to be patients or former patients at Walton to participate. Not all the basketball players on the team are confined to wheelchairs, but they have other disabling physical conditions.

"I love it," said Hephzibah's Jason Hitt, who was injured in a car accident three years ago, of wheelchair basketball. "It keeps me active."

Keeping active also helps the disabled with their mental well-being, Ms. Thompson said. "They don't have time to feel sorry for themselves."

It's been more than 25 years since Luer Hildebrandt was injured in a motorcycle accident. He said he joined the basketball league to get in better physical shape and lose some weight.

"I love it - it's all fun," said Mr. Hildebrandt, who retired after 20 years as an instructor at Fort Gordon.

Most of Walton's sporting events are held in Augusta. Saturday's basketball game was held at Aiken Tech because coach Bruce Capers invited the team to use the gym. Most home basketball games were held at Garrett Recreation Center this season.

Ms. Thompson said she is helping plan a sports program for the disabled that links the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Walton.

She said the program offers activities for military personnel injured in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far, there is one soldier on the basketball team and some others in the golf program, she said.

Reach Charmain Z. Brackett at czbrackett@hotmail.com.

Walton Rehabilitation Hospital, through BlazeSports America, a national sports organization for athletes with physical disabilities, offers golf, basketball, power soccer, wheelchair tennis and rugby teams for disabled athletes in the area. For more information, call 533-8076 or e-mail her at jthompson@wrh.org.