Achieving Athletic Excellence Despite Physical Challenges
Adler’s studies on inferiority began with physical problems, what he called organ inferiority (Adler, 1917). Most students of Adler look past that medical beginning, and focus instead on the psychological inferiorities that children experience during their development. However, there are many people with organ inferiority, or what we more commonly refer to as disabilities, handicaps, or “challenges.” There may be some debate as to which term is preferred, but since the phrase “politically correct” is itself a contradiction in terms, I will use the terms disability and handicap as presented in Warren Rule’s book Lifestyle Counseling for Adjustment to Disability (Rule, 1984). In his summary of previous research, Rule adopts the definition of a disability as a “relatively severe chronic impairment of function” that occurs as the result of a congenital defect, disease, or an accident. Accordingly, disability refers to actual physical, mental, or emotional impairments that become a handicap only if they cause lowered self-assessment, reduced activity, or limited opportunities. When disabilities become a handicap, they can affect the individual’s entire style of life. Thus, Rule brought together a group of therapists trained in Individual Psychology, and published the aforementioned book on using lifestyle counseling for people with disabilities that have led to handicaps.
However, not everyone with a disability develops a handicap. Instead, some individuals become truly inspirational by the way in which they live their lives in spite of their disability, or rather, as if they simply were not disabled. Erik Weihenmayer (2001; see also Stoltz & Weihenmayer, 2006) was born with retinoscheses, a degenerative eye disease, which slowly destroyed his retinas, leaving him blind by the age of 13. In high school, Erik spent a month one summer at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts. The summer camp included a weekend of rock climbing in N. Conway, New Hampshire (where the author has done a lot of rock-climbing). Weihenmayer’s rock climbing experience altered his life. He continued climbing rock, and then moved on to ice-climbing and mountaineering. He didn’t just followed more experienced climbers up the cliffs, he also learned to lead-climb: placing one’s own protection along the climb and then clipping in the rope, what climbers call “the sharp end” of the rope. I had the pleasure of climbing with Erik in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula a few years ago, while his seeing-eye dog slept in a sort of ice cave formed by the overhanging ice. It is truly extraordinary to watch him climb. He moves so smoothly, as he feels the ice above with his ice axe, and then sets the ice axe so deliberately when he finds the right spot, that you would not know he was climbing blind if you only watched for a little while. Eventually, Erik decided to pursue the Seven Summits, climbing the highest peak on each continent: Mt. McKinley (N. America), Aconcagua (S. America), Mt. Everest (Asia), Mt. Elbrus (Europe), Vinson Massif (Antarctica), Mt. Kosciusko (Australia), Kilimanjaro (Africa). He accomplished his goal in 2002.
Erik Weihenmayer is by no means the only well-known, disabled climber. In an amazing video, Beyond the Barriers (Perlman & Wellman, 1998), Erik goes climbing with Mark Wellman and Hugh Herr. Wellman was paralyzed from the waist down in a climbing accident (Wellman & Flinn, 1992), and Herr lost both of his lower legs to frostbite after being caught in a vicious winter storm on Mt. Washington, NH (Osius, 1991; Note: The author has suffered a small patch of frostbite during a winter storm on Mt. Washington). In Beyond the Barriers, Herr leads the hike toward the climb, while Erik carries Wellman. Once on the climb, Herr leads the climb, Erik follows, and they set ropes for Wellman to do pull-ups up the cliff. It simply has to be seen to be believed. One of the surprising aspects is how they joke with each other about what they are doing. As Erik is carrying Wellman, Wellman says: “I don’t know man. A blind man giving a para a piggyback ride? It’s a pretty scary thing!” When Herr starts climbing on a day when it was snowing, he says his hands are getting numb from the cold. So, Erik asks him how his feet feel! Humor was always an important part of Adlerian psychotherapy (Scott, 1984), so perhaps it should not be surprising that a sense of humor is an aspect of their personalities. One of the funniest stories that Erik tells is about the time he accidentally drank out of his climbing partners piss bottle (a bottle used to urinate inside the tent during storms). Erik became quite upset that the bottle wasn’t marked somehow, but his partner defended himself by saying he had clearly written on the bottle which one it was. It slowly dawned on Erik’s partner that the writing was of no help to Erik. As another example of Erik’s humor, consider the challenge he tried to avoid after having climbed the highest peaks in Africa and North and South America:
Emma Louise Weihenmayer was born on June 21, year 2000, at 3:57 A.M. There is so much to learn about parenthood. Sometimes being a father is about as intense as climbing Denali, Kilimanjaro, and Aconcagua, all in a day. Because I’m blind, I tried to convince Ellie that I couldn’t change diapers, but for some reason, she didn’t buy it. (pg. 303; Weihenmayer, 2001)
In addition to his climbing, Erik Weihenmayer is a college graduate with a teaching certificate, and he spent some time as a middle school teacher. He also tried the sport of wrestling, and was a wrestling coach. Trevon Jenifer was also a wrestler.
Trevon Jenifer was born without legs. Perhaps even more challenging, however, was the fact that he was the fourth child of a poor, single mother living in a ghetto outside of Washington, DC. Obviously, Trey (the name he goes by) began life facing difficult obstacles, but little by little, things got better. His mother, Connie, made a conscious decision to take care of him the best she could. She soon met Eric Brown, who became Trey’s step-father, providing a stable home for their family. He met a wonderful special education teacher named Bob Gray, who got Trey interested in sports, and who helped to make participating in sports a realistic possibility. He eventually joined a wheelchair track and basketball team named Air Capital, and he was very successful on the track, setting national records in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races. It was prior to his junior year in high school, however, that his step-father, who had been a wrestler, recommended that Trey try out for the wrestling team, the regular wrestling team.
What Trey wanted more than anything was to fit in, to have a normal social life at school. Being in a wheelchair, that was not likely to happen. However, he felt that sports might help him accomplish that goal, so he did try out for the wrestling team. He worked hard, learned as much as he could, and he made the varsity team as the 103-pound competitor (actually, there was no one else that light on the team, but he didn’t know that). His coach, Terry Green, did all he could to help Trey find a wrestling style that would take advantage of his relative arm strength (he made weight without legs, so his upper body was relatively large) while overcoming the disadvantage of not being able to balance or leverage his body weight by spreading out his legs. Now it was up to Trey. He was nervous in his first match, didn’t assert himself, and was easily pinned. In his second match he became the aggressor and earned his first victory. The rest of his junior year continued to be a series of wins and losses, and he ended the season 17-18. Of course, it had only been his first season of wrestling.
In anticipation of his senior year in high school, Trey continued to train hard. Outside of the ring he also received recognition, and became a part of the social network of the school. He received a Medal of Courage from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, he attended his school’s prom, and he was chosen as co-captain of the wrestling team. Once again, humor played a role, as he compared his strength to a teammate from the previous year. Trey had made significant strides in how much he could bench-press, so his former teammate asked him how much he could squat (a lift done entirely with the legs)! Both wrestlers enjoyed a good laugh at that one.
Trey was doing quite well in league wrestling, and he also began to do well in tournaments. Eventually, he won a tournament, ended his season at 26-6, and from there went on the state championship. He won his first match, but then had to face an undefeated wrestler. He lost, but in that loss there was a sense of accomplishment due to how far he had come:
I lost 5-2…I was hurt less by the fact that I lost, and more by the closeness of it. This one hurt even more because of how close I was to beating the best wrestler in the state. Sharbaugh went on to win the state championship. In fact, he won his last two matches very convincingly, 6-0, and, 12-5. He told reporters afterward that my match was his toughest of the tournament. (pp. 171-172; Trevon Jenifer in Jenifer & Goldenbach, 2006).
The next morning he had to return to the championships to wrestle for a chance at third place in the state. He began with a vengeance, scoring victories of 9-1 and 9-2. His next match, and a shot at third place, was not so easy, but he won 3-1, earning his 30th victory of the season. He then won his final match, and earned third place in the state championship. However, an even more important challenge now loomed ahead of him: college.
Coming from a poor, Black family, there was no tradition of children going to college. However, a group of concerned philanthropists became interested in supporting his dreams. His old coach at Air Capital had talked to Jim Glatch, who coached wheelchair basketball at Edinboro College in Pennsylvania, a school with a large population (10 percent) of students with disabilities. Trevon Jenifer currently attends Edinboro College and plays on the wheelchair basketball team. He does not know if he will ever wrestle again, but it is interesting to note that Edinboro College has a famous wrestler as their athletic director: two-time Olympic gold medalist Bruce Baumgartner!
Recently, Trey was kind enough to respond to an email I sent him, and he provided me with an update on how things have gone during his first year of college. He misses wrestling very much, but he has really enjoyed his return to wheelchair basketball. It probably didn’t hurt that the team is very good, and they came in second-place in the NCAA championship for wheelchair basketball. Trey maintained good grades, his family strongly supports him in pursuing his education, and he has made many new friends. But a few challenges remain. It has been a little difficult for him to get used to the weather in northwestern Pennsylvania, and he has been too busy to attend as many book signings as his publisher would like (but he says they have been very understanding). As for becoming the inspiration his mother thought he was born to be:
I think that I have inspired some people, and I think that is great, but I don’t think that it has reached all the people that I would like it too. My family says that I have done a good job, but I [think that I could do a lot better], and I will try until I feel that I have reached that. (Trevon Jenifer; personal communication, 2007)
The range of sports in which disabled individuals compete is extraordinary today. Beyond the Barriers also includes disabled individuals sailing, scuba diving, surfing, and hang gliding. A few years ago, I began practicing Tae Kwon Do, and I soon discovered that I had degenerative joint disease in both hips. I considered quitting Tae Kwon Do, but I was strongly encouraged to continue by my instructors, as well as by my orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist. I have since learned that Dirk Robertson, a former social worker turned actor and writer, has worked hard promoting martial arts training for people with disabilities (Robertson, 1991; see also McNab, 2003). Each person simply needs to be encouraged to do their best. Adler suggested that the best way to strive for superiority was through social interest. Whether it’s a climbing partner, a wrestling team, a wheelchair basketball team, a martial arts school, whatever, when people work together to help each individual achieve their potential, it can prove to be a highly rewarding experience.
Whilst it is important to be sensitive to their particular situation, their disability should not be the central focus all the time. Their ability to learn, listen and adapt should be built on and encouraged. Do not be over-protective or an instant expert on people with disabilities. The experts are the people themselves, so listen to what they have to say. (pp. 101-102; Robertson, 1991)