Wheelchair athlete wants right to compete

Rose Hollermann, a 15-year-old wheelchair athlete, has sued the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). The Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School sophomore and Courage Center basketball star wants the right to compete alongside runners at high school athletic events.

Hollermann’s attorney Justin Page, from the Minnesota Disability Law Center, filed the civil lawsuit Dec. 8 in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. Hollermann is alleging discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The MSHSL Board of Directors will consider the lawsuit, and Hollermann’s request to compete with other runners at the board’s February meeting. The league also has a sports medicine advisory committee, which is studying the issue.

Hollermann is a well-known wheelchair athlete, with outstanding abilities. She is also a good student, with a 3.35 grade point average.

She told KARE-11 recently that the issue is one of fairness. “I just think it’s important for everyone to be treated equally and to have the same opportunities,” she said.

Hollermann competes in basketball, track and field, and sled hockey. She has used a wheelchair since sustaining a spinal cord injury in a 2001 motor vehicle accident. According to court documents, Hollermann uses her wheelchair about half of the time and is able to walk about half of the time. She cannot run or compete in sports activities while on her feet.

Hollermann was a member of the 2011 U.S. Women’s Basketball team that won a gold medal in the Para-Olympic Pan American Games. I January she will try out for the U.S. Women’s Para-Olympic basketball team. She has played on championship teams at Courage Center and has won all-tournament team honors.

She was part of her school’s junior high track and field team in 2009 and 2010, competing in the 1600 meter and 800 meter runs, the shot put and discus events. The MSHSL doesn’t have any authority over junior high school sports in Minnesota.

As a high school student she practices with the high school team but cannot compete as a team member. Any points she earns as a wheelchair athlete are not included in her team’s meet totals.

In spring 2011 Hollermann won the inaugural girls’ wheelchair 1,600 and 800 races at the state track and field meet. She was the only participant in the races. The Hollermann family worked to have the events added to the state meets starting in 2010. The MSHSL added three wheelchair events last year and will add three more wheelchair division competitions this year.

Court documents indicate that at some high school events, officials have allowed Hollermann to compete in mixed races, without any problems.

She has continued to advocate that the MSHSL more fully include wheelchair athletes in track and field. She has requested that wheelchair athletes be allowed to race alongside other track and field athletes where there is only one wheelchair racer; score team points; and participate in the same number of track and field events as runners. The MSHSL has refused to make any changes to its track and field rules and continues to exclude wheelchair racers from fully being a part of their high school track teams.

“The High School League treats Rose and other wheelchair athletes like second class athletes,” said Page. “Rose is a world-class athlete and it is an outrage that the High School League will not let her be a full and equal member of her high school track team. The same rules that apply to runners should apply to Rose and other wheelchair athletes. Rose should have the ability to score team points and participate in track and field events of her choosing. She should also have the ability to wheel in mixed races where she is the only wheelchair athlete, like she has done many times in the past.”

The competitions between wheelchair athletes and runners are held separately due to concerns about safety. MSHSL Associate Director Jody Redman told KARE-11 that there are concerns that a runner and a wheelchair athlete could have a collision. Court documents indicate that when Hollermann did compete with runners as a junior high athlete, there were never any accidents.

She would typically start those races in the third lane of the track behind the other athletes, and then cut over once there was enough distance between her and the other athletes.

Another issue the MSHSL has raised is that of fairness, and whether competing in a wheelchair in longer races provides a competitive advantage.

Hollermann said she agrees that the two types of athletes should not be in a direct competition, but she states that wheelchair athletes should be allowed to score some points for their team.

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  1. As a long time coach, MSHSL and USATF official and youth chairman for USATF Minnesota, I am in favor of the addition of the wheelchair events and glad to see the expansion of the number of events. I have difficulty seeing how the mix of the wheelchair and nonwheelchair athletes can be done both fairly and safely for all. As the article points out, Rose “would typically start those races in the third lane of the track behind the other athletes, and then cut over once there was enough distance between her and the other athletes.” This implies the inherent safety risk and also does not permit Rose the fair start the rules permit to the other athletes. Just because Rose was permitted at other races to be in mixed races does not mean that the other races handled it in the best way. I do wish Rose much success but only partially agree with her case.

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