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Adaptive Track & Field: Angels In The Infield

At the inaugural Angel City Games it was one big personal best

Ezra Frech is a record-breaking, multi-sport athlete. He’s been profiled in Sports Illustrated, something that Ellen DeGeneres talked with him about during his appearance on “The Ellen Show.” Oh, and did I mention that Ezra is 10 years old? Or, as he describes it, that he was “born with one finger on my left hand, and a leg that was curved.” That “curve” was actually the result of a missing left knee and fibula, a condition that led to surgery at the age of 2 ½, during which—again in Ezra’s words—“They removed the part that was curved, they took the big toe and they put it on my left hand, and so now I have two fingers and a stump that they can put a prosthetic leg on.”

To hear Ezra chronicle this is like listening to any random kid’s description of a recent haircut, so matter-of-fact is he. It’s of little consequence to him. And during his many motivational speaking appearances, the message he conveys is simply, “Being different is OK.” He plays basketball, soccer, and flag football, right in the midst of teammates and opponents that have never had to deal with the impact of a “curved leg.”

A few years ago, Ezra’s dad, Clayton, recognized that his son may eventually max out his opportunities to play team sports, and dove into introducing his son to individual sports, and to the world of paralympic competitions. If nine national age-group records (and counting) are any indication, Ezra’s taken particularly well to adaptive track and field.

While Ezra typically undersells his achievements, they haven’t been easy to come by. See, his native Southern California is not exactly a hotbed of paralympic competition opportunity. High-level adaptive sports events are hard to come by. And by “hard to come by,” I mean there are…none. Or at least there were none, until Clayton Frech decided that relentless travel to competitions in other parts of the country was far less desirable than having local events in which to take part. So he created the Angel City Games, along with its parent organization, Angel City Sports. Simple enough solution, right?

Wrong.

As Clayton describes in the accompanying Conversations With… (see Related Stuff), the operative word during the formative stages of this initiative was “overwhelming.” But the combination of his tenacity, his years of event experience, and his network of willing allies—both in and outside of the adaptive sports community—eventually carried the day and led to this inaugural Angel City Games.

On the day prior to my visit to the Games, there’d been a full slate of instructional clinics for various track and field events and a series of wheelchair basketball exhibitions, which was capped off with a lively celebrity game. The official competition was reserved for Day Two, and it was in full swing by the time I arrived. The throwing (discus, javelin, shot put) and jumping (high jump, long jump) events were finishing up, and like any other track and field event, people were gearing up for the glamour races.

Like the toddler 20 meter run, for instance.

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Now, under any circumstances, a race involving a bunch of toddlers is a veritable YouTube video-fest just waiting to go viral. But at the Angel City Games the environment was particularly priceless. Displaying not an iota of self-consciousness, the participants appeared blissfully unaware of anything out of the ordinary. They were just doing their thing, as toddlers are wont to do. And when they gazed around, most everybody they saw looked a lot like them. What’s the big deal here?, you could almost hear them thinking. Why is everybody so interested in me running over there to get a hug from Mom?

That level of self-confidence was no doubt reinforced by the attitude of everyone around them, from parents to coaches to the adult athletes that were the stars of these Games—and thus the role models for the youngsters.

Adaptive and paralympic sports have transcended their first critical generation of growth, and are now as mainstream as any of the earliest pioneers could have hoped for. As a result, physically challenged kids now grow up having others to both compete against, and to emulate. And with the growth of unified sports, which involve mixed teams of able-bodied and disabled athletes, inclusion is further ingrained. From the way that many of the competitors on hand this day carried themselves, you got the sense that they felt much less stigmatized than their forebears. One young athlete, for example, was turning heads for a reasons that had nothing to do with the fact that a carbon fiber blade took the place of one of her lower legs.

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