Changing face of sports highlights more opportunities as well as challenges
Can a quadriplegic woman sail solo across the English Channel? Can a woman in a wheelchair be a hockey player? In both cases, the answer is a resounding yes.
Jen Onsum and Hilary Lister are great examples of women with disabilities choosing to stay active in competitive and recreational sports. Historically, women generally have lagged behind men in the area of athletics. This disparity is even more pronounced between men and women with disabilities.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, disabled women are not getting as many opportunities as men are in all levels of sport. In 2002 the International Wheelchair Federation reported that only 12 percent of all wheelchair basketball players in the world were female. International Paralympic Committee statistics show that less than one-third of all athletes participating in the 2004 games in Athens were women. This was up from a mere 23 percent in the 1992 games in Barcelona. But it still illustrates the significant gap between disabled men and women athletes.
When Hilary Lister was a child she aspired to become a biochemist. She was an active child who participated in many sports in school in England. Lister’s plans changed when in her 20s she was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. The muscle-wasting disease left her a quadriplegic, only able to move her head, eyes and mouth.
Lister was housebound for four long years. On her web site, she describes those years as her darkest days. When a friend convinced her to go sailing with him in 2003, Lister’s life was transformed. She instantly fell in love with the sport and felt a life-altering sense of freedom. She described sailing as being “the nearest thing to flying.”
Tired of always being a passenger, Lister was determined to devise a way to sail independently. A chance encounter with a famous sailor at a London boat show brought her dream of a solo sail closer to reality. She secured a sponsor to design a boat that she could operate herself. By puffing air into two straws, she was able to steer the boat and control the sail.
Lister then set her sights even higher. Her next goal was to sail solo across the English Channel. In August of 2005, with a support boat following a half mile behind, she accomplished this goal and became the first quadriplegic to cross the English Channel solo. In 2007, Lister pushed herself further, setting another record by becoming the first female quadriplegic to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight—a distance more than twice that of the English Channel.
This summer, 36-year-old Lister faces her biggest challenge to date. On June 16 she set out on what will be a three-month journey around Britain. If all goes according to plan she will be sailing every day, stopping to rest at various ports around the British Isles. About her amazing sailing accomplishments, Lister says, “It’s about showing that anyone can live an active life.”
St. Paul athlete Jen Onsum, 27, is also leading an active, sport-filled life. Onsum, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, has been playing Power-Hockey since the Minnesota PowerHockey League was formed in 1997. She describes PowerHockey as being very similar to ice hockey: “We have simply replaced the ice with a gym floor and the puck with a wiffle ball. Our skates are our wheels.” She adds that “the determination, competitiveness and intensity are just as strong [as in ice hockey].”
Onsum began playing adaptive sports in middle school, seeing it as a great opportunity to be an athlete like her able-bodied peers. With her limited upper body strength, she found her niche in defense and has been voted MN PowerHockey Defender of the Year four times. PowerHockey is a predominantly male sport; Onsum is one of fewer than 10 females playing in Minnesota.
When asked what she likes best about competitive sports, Onsum said that she loves the adrenaline and the rush of playing. “I love playing as rough and tough as the guys and showing them that girls can kick some butt, too,” she said. The Women’s Sports Foundation asserts that women and girls with disabilities need to be given the same encouragement as their male counterparts in the area of athletics. Involvement in sports has obvious health benefits but can also raise self-esteem and improve body image in girls.
In the case of Hilary Lister, the recreational sport of sailing gives her a sense of freedom and puts her on equal footing with other sailors. She says, “If I’m on the water, I’m as able as the person in the boat next to me.”
Jen Onsum sums up the benefits of competitive sports: “Playing sports teaches people to have greater self-confidence, to be more out-going and how to really be a ‘team’ player, all of which can benefit you in all aspects of life.”