Paralympian helps bring Ghanaian athletes to U.S.

Paralympian helps bring Ghanaian athletes to U.S.

In September 2001, Olympic athlete Jean Driscoll traveled to Ghana to hold a training camp for wheelchair athletes there.

It was the first time Driscoll, a wheelchair athlete who not only raced in the Boston Marathon but also won it eight times, had been in the central African country.

A University of Illinois graduate and Paralympian, Driscoll had held training camps before.

But when she arrived in one of the stadiums for the first practice, she saw seven wheelchairs on hand; six of them were operable.

Thirty-two people came to the stadium.

"What hit my heart was people crawling into the stadium. They had calluses on their knees the size of kneepads. I was not prepared for that," Driscoll said.

For many people, that first day of the camp was the first time they had been up off the ground in a wheelchair.

"It was a significant moment for me to see how people were living," she said. "I've always had a wheelchair when I needed it," said Driscoll, who has used a wheelchair since she was in her teens.

On the long plane ride back to the U.S. that fall, she said to herself, "Something has to be done." Six years later, five Ghanaian wheelchair athletes and their coach are in town this week to train with Driscoll and University of Illinois coaches. Before coming to Champaign-Urbana, they spent time in Georgia, where racing chairs were built for them.

This week, they've worked out with the UI's head wheelchair basketball coach Mike Frogley, head wheelchair track coach Adam Bleakney, and Marty Morse, a former head track coach at the UI and former Paralympic coach.

Their schedule has included sprint and long-distance workouts on the track and on the road, as well as hitting the basketball courts and practicing with the UI wheelchair basketball teams. They spent one grueling morning pushing themselves and their chairs up the ramps in Memorial Stadium.

Back in the early years, when most of them started training in Ghana, the idea was to build up their strength as well as develop friendships with each other, said athlete Raphael Botsyo.

With the help of the nonprofit Joni and Friends, which provides wheelchairs to people in developing countries; their able-bodied coaches in Ghana; coaches like Driscoll; and other donations from groups like the Rotary Club and private donors, they became more than a group of disabled people who worked out on the weekends.

They became wheelchair athletes.

Before she was a wheelchair athlete, "life was full of worries," said Ajara Busanga Mohammed, speaking through her interpreter and coach, Caesar Dzikunu.

Mohammed was stricken with polio when she was 3 and rarely left the house. She was not invited to family gatherings. She first used a wheelchair in 1996 when she was 22.

In 2004, she raced in 800-meter and marathon races in the Paralympics in Athens. It was the first time Ghana had sent athletes to the games.

"It was huge. We were representing our nation for the first time," she said through Dzikunu.

"There was joy in her heart," he added.

Fellow racer Botsyo was the second wheelchair athlete to represent Ghana that year.

"One thing I cannot forget is training with the other wheelchair athletes from around the world. ... I never dreamed I would be there with them," he said.

"The experience was huge, life-changing," Dzikunu said.

The transformation in their own lives has been remarkable, they all said.

"These folks are becoming leaders for the disability movement in Ghana," Driscoll said.

In the years she's been involved with the Ghanaian athletes, Driscoll has seen subtle societal and cultural shifts in how people with disabilities are viewed there.

"The way that people with disabilities have been treated in Ghana is a lot like how they were treated in the beginning of the 20th century here. It's just now beginning to change," Driscoll said.

When their training concludes today, the athletes will head back to Ghana to meet with members of the National Paralympics Committee to discuss preparations for qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Para-lympics, which will take place following the Olympics. Dzikunu will stay here for several more weeks to work with UI coaches on training techniques.

The goal is to qualify as many athletes as possible for the 2008 games in Beijing.

And bring home gold medals, added Dzikunu.

This year's trip to the U.S. was sponsored by the office of UI President B. Joseph White and a gift from Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

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