Sunday, March 17, 2002

Alive and well

Wheelchair athlete competes for new dream

        At the end of her junior year at the University of Cincinnati, Stacy James stood on the shoulders of a friend in a swimming pool. She knew not to dive in shallow water and, indeed, diving was not her intention when she started to fall. They were standing in five feet, but her head struck bottom in the three-feet depth, and she almost became a drowning statistic.

        Friends pulled her out in time to breathe, but she had broken her neck.

        Today, at age 31, she is an accomplished speaker and wheelchair athlete. Her most recent “dream come true,” however, occurred Feb.23 in Mansfield, when she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Ohio.

No bathing suits

        Begun in 1972, the Ms. Wheelchair Ohio Pageant is not about bathing suits and talent shows. Instead, judges select a woman each year who has made significant achievements since the onset of disability, who is articulate and who can serve as spokeswoman for the millions of American women with disabilities.

        Defined technically as an “incomplete quadriplegic,” Ms. James has 25 percent of strength available to her in her arms and can stand and walk for short distances with crutches. Her primary means of mobility is with a wheelchair, however, and she has used that 25 percent of remaining strength to become a serious athlete.

        Together with her mother, with whom she now resides in Dublin, Ohio, she has handcycled her way through nine marathons in three years, as well as using adaptive equipment to water ski, snow ski, kayak and sail.

        “I love marathons the most,” she says. “First, there's the thrill of coming across the finish line and knowing you have really accomplished something. But it's also a wonderful way to see a city.

        “In New York, I crossed five rivers, saw all five boroughs and handcycled through streets and neighborhoods that I never would have seen as a tourist.”

        The Ohio Pageant drew eight contestants from across the state — including Heather Sturgill of Cincinnati, who became quadriplegic in an auto accident two years ago, and second runner-up Jana Wormuth of Cincinnati, who is a student at Wright State University.

Meeting each other

        As Ms. Wheelchair Ohio, Ms. James will address schools and businesses on behalf of women with disabilities and will go on to compete for the Ms. Wheelchair America crown in Rockville, Md., in early August. She is on staff with Campus Crusades for Christ and is writing a book called Walking Victorious.

        The best part of the Ohio Pageant, all contestants agree, was sharing and coming to know one another. “I didn't go to win,” Heather Sturgill says.

        “I just really wanted the experience of knowing other women with disabilities, and coming to know them all was wonderful.”

        Rosemarie Rosetti of Columbus, first runner-up, says that although she has been a professional speaker for 20 years, she considers the Ms. Wheelchair Ohio to be her personal best in performance. Contestants were expected to know about disability law and history, and Ms. Rosetti used her skills as a researcher to familiarize herself with those topics. Her random question was, “What would you tell President Bush, if you had five minutes with him, about the ADA?” Her answer: “Be bold, be brave, do something like your dad,” (who signed the act into law.) She mailed the videotaped answer to President Bush and is awaiting his response.

        Still, Ms. Rosetti sees the unity of the eight contestants as what she will carry with her.

        Ms. James echoes those sentiments. “All of the women were so different,” she says. “They were mothers, students, athletes — and all wonderful. Right before the winner was announced, someone grabbed my hand. We were all holding hands, arms raised, when the winner was announced.”

        A powerful symbol for any competition, but particularly powerful when you consider that some of the contestants would not have the ability to grip another hand, or the strength to lift her arm independently.

        Stacy James will wear the crown, but clearly all contestants in this unusual pageant are winners.

        Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:


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