Max Blake joined the Carolina Hurricanes junior sled hockey team just a few months ago and finished a spectacular season-opening tournament. He scored eight goals in five games, including a hat trick (three goals in a single game) that left a positive impression on coaches and teammates back in January.
He was excited to be fitting in with his new team because sled hockey was, quite simply, his thing.
Then the pandemic hit.
“It broke his heart,” said Max’s father, Bud Blake.
The global spread of COVID-19 and subsequent cancelations and postponements of social activities has impacted the sport and recreation world drastically. Max’s sled hockey team was another victim, as his season of tournaments was canceled.
The Blakes live in Knoxville, Tenn., and Max, who has spina bifida, has played sled hockey for three years. He practices locally with adults, and started playing travel sled hockey with a Nashville team. This season was his first playing with the Carolina team, based out of Charlotte.
“Having spina bifida, he’s never in the spotlight,” Bud said. “And if he is in the spotlight, it’s always about going to this doctor appointment or that clinic. So with his disability, he doesn’t get in the spotlight much. I think sled hockey was the biggest thing for him as a child because he was a hero.”
COVID-19 has darkened that spotlight, unfortunately, forcing everyone to redirect their sport and recreation pursuits. Welcome to the new invisible barrier for people with disabilities during this season of social isolation and quarantining.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people get at least 2.5 hours of aerobic physical activity per week. The CDC also states that nearly half of adults with disabilities do not get any aerobic physical activity.
So when a pandemic chokes out recreation and sport activities, among the affected populations are those with disabilities and chronic disease or illness. Stories cover the spectrum from shifting recreational activities, rediscovering activities, or shutting them down altogether. COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but especially the portion of society where physical activity and social interaction is vital for inclusion.
For people like Max, even at age 9, it has been important to shift recreation toward other outlets. Max has been swimming in his grandmother’s pool, taking on household chores, and mowing the lawn on his dad’s zero-turn riding mower.
The shift isn’t quite as exciting as ripping around the ice on a sled.
Tyler Rich has dealt with the same letdown, but managed to use the pandemic to train.
Tyler, from Crozet, Va., has cerebral palsy and competes in Spartan Para team races using his Freedom Chair, a rugged, all-terrain wheelchair designed for outdoor adventure. The events are 5Ks with obstacles along the way and a competition among teams of four adaptive athletes.
“Unfortunately, Spartans have stopped,” Tyler said. “You’d think since you have a couple thousand people on a race course that they naturally stay away from each other, but a lot of the obstacles rely on cooperation and working together as a group. Plus, you’re just touching stuff. It’s not the most hygienic scenario.”
Tyler’s “Team Still Loading …” finished with third in last year’s second annual Spartan Para Team Championship in Laughlin, Nev.
He’s been able to stay connected with other Spartan athletes through Zoom meetings, but he’s also staying active by using his Freedom Chair to trek across connected roadways in his hometown.
“From a fitness and racing perspective, this has actually been kind of a blessing because I’m commuting more in the chair so my distances are going up,” Tyler said. “Even though I’m not on super hard, rugged trails, 20 miles a day on asphalt is pretty serviceable training for a 5k, which is what the para race is.”
Tyler has used Google Maps to plot out a network of trails that carry him across his town.
“I’ve lived in Crozet and the surrounding area for 20 years, and I had never been to the park until this pandemic broke out,” Tyler said. “The park I go to does have some tricky sections where you have to focus. It’s a good challenge, especially if I’m solo or even with one other person. It’s challenging enough that it’s fun, but not dangerous. That chair is keeping me sane.”
Despite the cancelation of many organized sporting events, the great outdoors have given solace to people seeking some simple and necessary movement. Even virtual connections have been welcomed.
Deb Sullivan, recreation program director for Challenge Aspen in Snowmass, Colo., said the organization began virtual programming within a week of shutting down their in-person skiing and outdoor recreation activities.
“Probably the most affected group in our programming were those athletes that were getting ready to participate in the NASTAR Nationals (competitive skiing event) that were to be hosted at Snowmass,” Deb said. “The cancelation was a huge letdown and terrible way to end the season for them.”
She said the organization immediately shifted to virtual programming through the website and Facebook. They have tried to connect through social distance drive-by communication with about 20 participants.
Sportable, a non-profit adaptive sports club in Richmond, Va., has also quickly shifted to virtual outreach to maintain some form of community and physical activity for its athletes.
“It has impacted a lot of our athletes who don’t have adapted equipment for their particular sport, or any sport,” said Forrest Lodge, program manager at Sportable who is leading much of the Facebook and Zoom connection opportunities. “That has been a struggle. If you look across our entire athlete population that we serve, we’re going to have many ups and downs. I can imagine a lot of our athletes are dealing with some aspects of depression or anxiety because of the social isolation.”
Sportable offered no virtual classes or training prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Forrest said the organization now hosts weekly meetings for its competitive and recreational teams, and this has pushed the organization into what likely will be a consistent online and virtual communication stream for the future.
Forrest even sees this move to online outreach as a way to serve more people beyond the Richmond area.
“The biggest thing for us is staying relevant and fulfilling our mission, even though we can’t do it how we normally would,” Forrest said. “Like we do in our sports and how they were created, we’re trying to adapt and put our best foot forward.”
For Challenge Aspen, location is one of its biggest assets, according to Deb.
“We are so blessed to live in an area where getting outside is part of everyday life,” she said. “The weather has been beautiful and it seems that everyone is making time to get out for hikes and walks and a little biking.”
The ability to simply shift physical activity and recreation, however, has not been easy for everyone.
“It’s definitely changed things,” said Cindy Baldwin, a writer from Hillsboro, Ore., who lives with cystic fibrosis. “The first several weeks, once the stay-at-home order went into effect, I was really having trouble because I was so completely exhausted every day.”
Cindy’s daily energy expanded from managing her family’s house to also include homeschooling and parenting stressors of her 7-year-old daughter.
Physical exercise is essential for members of the CF community, so restricting how and where exercise can take place can be a massive barrier. Cindy said she didn’t have a gym membership before the pandemic, and the closure of outdoor spaces like state and national parks limited her excursions. Even those that remain open are not safe for her due to health risks.
“We live near a neighborhood park that has trails and my husband and daughter have walked there since this has started, but I haven’t walked there yet because it’s always been a popular park. I’ve been nervous to venture out into places where I know people might be,” Cindy said.
Cindy said she has not gone into a building since early March.
“We CF patients have joked that everyone is experiencing a small dose of life with CF now,” Cindy said.
Kati Gardner of Raleigh, N.C., can relate. A writer and friend of Cindy’s, she is a single-leg amputee from childhood cancer. She jokes that she worked out before COVID-19 shut down her gym “because I need to, not because I enjoy it.”
Travel restrictions and sanitary precautions took her back to the time of her chemotherapy treatments at age eight.
“Wearing the mask was a little triggering for my brain,” Kati said. “It reminds me a lot of when I was on treatment because I didn’t have an immune system and couldn’t go out. I couldn’t go to the movies. I couldn’t go shopping. I couldn’t go to school. So to me, this is very reminiscent of that time in my life.”
Kati, her husband, and their two daughters have been forced to adjust their recreation, which was mostly park visits and playground fun. Both provided a controlled area for Kati to navigate with two forearm crutches while monitoring her girls, but both were closed during the pandemic. They also were avid movie-goers, but not now.
The greenway near their house is an option for Kati’s husband and children to bike and walk, but she said the leaves and natural debris along the path make it slippery and dangerous.
Kati said her family has resorted to motorized recreation.
“We go out on a lot of car rides to neighboring counties just to see them,” she said. “We went to the state farmer’s market, which is open, but it made us feel like we were breaking the rules. It was too much.”
Amy Taylor said she has experienced both the positive and negative effects of the pandemic.
Amy lives in Los Angeles with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She said scenic drives around L.A., of all things, have given her some recreational satisfaction.
She’s only lived in L.A. for six months, and she said she isolates often due to her disability.
“The solace and relaxation I have found in going to the beach is absent these days with COVID-19,” Amy said. “It is actually stressful to go to the nearby parks. Everyone is wearing masks and it just seems tense as you constantly have to be aware of your surroundings. This has definitely impacted my leisure.”
Instead, Amy has settled into more activities within her apartment, some with her roommate and some on her own: Singing, blogging, knitting, cooking, and drawing.
“Being on the fourth floor of an apartment in a dense city where people are taking the measures pretty seriously, I have spent more time recreating at home,” Amy said. “But I do miss nature, being able to go to Vegas or the beach. I was making efforts to get out more and was going to volunteer and join a local church, and the virus put a stop to that for now.”
Back in Knoxville, Max is an active kid with his wheelchair, in the floor at home, and on the ice. Travel sled hockey has been an excellent outlet for him with weekend tournaments and a practice once a week.
“You’re thinking that hockey for a bunch of kids with disabilities is just the parents there saying, ‘Oh, look at them go. They’re having fun.’ No,” Bud laughed. “There are fights. These kids are competitive.”
“As a parent, it’s been hard because you’re inside all day long,” Bud said. “He can’t get outside and run and play. He can get outside because we have a ramp and some asphalt around the house, but the area he’s able to get to is smaller.”
Bud said fishing in their boat every week or so has been a nice alternative throughout the spring, although he claims Max likes riding the boat more than fishing.
If things get back to a normal way of life, some have indicated they’ll welcome that with open arms. Others, like the Blakes, admit they like the slower pace and focus on family. Still, some aren’t sure what to expect—or when to expect it.
“I struggle as a person who has a chronic illness because, if schools re-open in the fall but we’re still seeing a lot of cases, do I let my children go back?” Kati asked.
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Cindy, who also wasn’t sure about school for her daughter this fall.
But Cindy said amid the uncertainty, like others, she’s learned a lot about herself.
“I have demonstrated to myself that I have the ability to keep going even when it seems impossible,” she said. “I hope these things can help us in the future.”
by Joshua R. Pate, PhD
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