ORR coach teams up with physically impaired athletes

By Georgia Sparling | Apr 18, 2016
Photo by: Karen Winsper Josh Winsper and Mikayla Chandler pose together at the MIAA State Championship earlier this school year.

Mattapoisett — For physically disabled athletes, there may not be a better high school in the state than Old Rochester Regional, at least that’s how senior Josh Winsper, freshman Mikayla Chandler and their parents feel.

Both students have Achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and both are members of ORR’s track team.

According to Winsper, a Rochester resident and Chandler, a Marion resident, their inclusion on the track team is due to Athletic Director Bill Tilden as well as his wife, Cindy, the school’s track coaches.

When Winsper started his freshman year, he had every intention of being a “baseball guy” after years on the diamond.

“Bill said, ‘Why not track? You look like a thrower to me,’” recalled Winsper.

He gave it a try and quickly fell in love with the sport, specializing in discus and shot put.

Winsper’s mother, Karen, said her son has been encouraged in sports since he was a kid.

“Everybody was always accepting. There was never a question, he was just going to do it,” she said. But in high school, “Bill has brought out in him that determination, both inner and outer strength.”

Tilden, who doesn’t like to talk about himself, has a simple approach to working with students who have a physical handicap: “I just treat them like everybody else. We recruit everybody we can. They get the same opportunities that others do.”

Winsper’s example and encouragement convinced Chandler to join the team this year.

Like Winsper, she was always active, participating in dance, soccer and lacrosse.

But, she said, “As time went on, the girls got faster and the field got bigger and I was the same size.”

Chandler was apprehensive about joining the track team, but Winsper, an All-State champion, convinced her.

Of all the high schools in the state, Winsper and Chandler are probably at one of the most forward thinking ones when it comes to the athletic program.

Opening doors for adaptive athletes

ORR has been ahead of the game when it comes to including physically disabled athletes in team sports, but at state competitions, there hasn’t always been a place for them to participate. Until his junior year, when the rest of the team would go to championship competitions, Winsper stayed home.

Last year was the first time he was allowed to compete in the spring track championship, where he was the only physically challenged athlete. At the winter championships at the division and All State level, he was one of only two.

“They’re trying to open the doors,” Tilden said of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. “Josh has been the poster child and now Mikayala is stepping into the role.”

Tilden said athletic programs have been hesitant to make a place for or to encourage disabled athletes, unsure of how to include them.

“We’re trying to reach out more,” said Tilden, who serves on the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association board and the Track and Cross Country Committee. “The word isn’t getting out there. The kids haven’t been pushed into sports. People are scared of change.”

At competitions, there has been confusion over the specific rules for impaired athletes and admittedly, with different classifications set for different abilities, it can get confusing.

Adaptive Sports New England is reinforcing the work Tilden does at ORR across the state. The organization, headed by two-time Paralympian Joe Walsh, is working to create more opportunities for athletes with “visual or mobility impairments” in New England.

Last year, Josh participated in the nonprofit’s Paralympic Experience, a one-day, multi-sport clinic. For the Winspers, meeting so many other athletes and learning about the opportunities for them to compete was life changing.

“Adaptive Sports is trying to encourage a better understanding of what is available,” said Karen Winsper.

Come April 24, Mikayala is looking forward to participating in the Paralympic Experience, held in Boston.

“It’s a domino effect,” said Karen Winsper. “The more students we can get to the Paralympic Experience, who knows what kind of doors it’s going to open.”

Her son has already been able to expand his competitive sphere by being able to participate at the state level, a requirement to qualify for the National Disability Championship in New Jersey. At the competition last spring, Winsper broke the record for the disc throw in his classification.

This summer, he will head to Charlotte, North Carolina where he has qualified for the Paralympic Trials. He also plans to compete in college.

The next generation of adaptive athletes

Michelle Chandler, Mikayla’s mother, said her family wouldn’t have known of all the opportunities available for her daughter had it not been for Josh.

Now, Chandler is not only looking forward to a career on ORR's track team, but the possibility of competing with other athletes in her classification.

“With other sports, people like us wouldn’t have the opportunity to shine,” she said.

The 15-year-old is making her mark in the Paralympic world, even if Tilden isn’t quite ready for her to know it yet.

“She is one of the top female dwarf athletes in the United States,” he said. But, “I don’t want to overwhelm her with all the possibilities coming.”

As both students work to increase their competitive edge and the opportunities available to them, it is with the understanding that they don’t expect any special treatment. Instead, Tilden said they are inspiration for everyone else to work harder.

“They bust their butts everyday,” said Tilden. “They don’t want to be treated differently.”

Athletic Director urged Josh Winsper to try track as a freshman. Now the senior is a hopeful in the Paralympics. (Photo by: Karen Winsper)
Newcomer Mikayala Chandler is already proving her athleticism, says Athletic Director and track coach Bill Tilden. (Photo by: Karen Winsper)
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