Monday, June 2, 2008

Beach on overcoming obstacles

Playing the game is key for Karen Smith, whose wide, wild range of sports activities defies her disability.
When doctors told her 18 years ago that she had multiple sclerosis and they weren’t sure about her long-term ability to walk, she demanded to know, “My God, how can I ski?”
“That was more important to me than walking,” she recalled. “I’d been skiing since I was four.”
Adoptive sports were then just beginning, but Smith heard about a device that enables people with balance problems to ski without standing.
“I ski like crazy,” she said, showing me the proof in her photo album, several shots taken in Killington, Vt. “I’ve been on every trail.”
That photo album is an amazing document. Leafing through it, you can see pictures of her playing sled hockey, kayaking, water-skiing on Cape Cod, playing tennis at a tournament in New Hampshire, bicycling on a three-wheel cycle on Block Island, and another one you just won’t believe.
“That’s me, jumping out of an airplane,” she said. “This was when I turned 50.”
How, you ask, could a person who uses a wheelchair possibly jump out of a plane?
“I can stand on one leg,” she told me. “And I was strapped to a guy. We came in sitting.”
“He was cute!” she added. “I was thinking, ‘I’m strapped to a cute guy, jumping out of an airplane. If I don’t make it, there are worse ways to go!’”
She was showing me the album as we sat behind the reception desk at a center called Physical Fitness in Branford. She is its fitness director. They don’t do physical therapy but specialize in medical fitness.
A few years ago, that place and its owner, Mike Leonard, saved her life.
“I went through a very bad depression,” she said. “I didn’t do any sports for a couple of years. I just sat around, getting fat. I was saying, ‘Oh well, who cares?’ My friends knew that wasn’t like me. It turned out it was caused by one of my M.S. drugs.”
And so her state of mind was restored, but her body had a lot of work to do. Five years ago, she came to Physical Fitness and met Leonard.
“When I first came here, I couldn’t even get out of my chair without somebody helping me,” she recalled. “Mike never looked at me other than as an athlete who wanted to get back to her sports. He didn’t say, like many of the public, ‘You’re in a wheelchair, you’re 56, what are you doing?’”
Under his training program, she lost 70 pounds. “He got me back to where I said, ‘OK, I can play again.’”
One of her proudest achievements is on display at the fitness center: the trophy naming her Adult Female Athlete of the Year, 2007 by the New England Wheelchair Athletic Association.
Now she’s so busy with her sports that it’s hard setting up a time when she can sit still for an interview. Our appointment had to be put off because her team, the Connecticut Wolf Pack, was in Ottawa, Canada for a sled hockey tournament.
“I’m the goalie, the crazy one,” she said.
The one game she didn’t pursue was golf. “It was boring. But I was able to beat my able-bodied boyfriend!”
Wherever Smith goes, her dog Dakota is by her side. They have been together for 11 years, since Dakota was eight weeks old.
“She supports me if I need it,” Smith said. “And she can pick things up when I drop them.”
Dakota sits by the Physical Fitness front door, the unofficial greeter and mascot for all who enter.
“If she sees somebody come in with a cane or in a chair, she’ll help them,” Smith noted. “She can sense when people need help.”
When Smith gives the sign, Dakota hops on the treadmill. She can stay on for as long as 20 minutes. Apparently she likes it; her tail wags when she’s up there.
In Smith’s earlier years, she held many titles at the New Haven Central Hospital for Veterinary Medicine. She was there when it opened in the mid-1970s and eventually became administrator. But last November she decided to “retire.”
“I loved the hospital but I had to cut back because of the M.S. and I had to get away from the stress of being administrator. I felt like I wasn’t making a difference anymore.”
She added, “After I started working here, I realized: ‘This is awesome. This is helping people to succeed.’ They see Dakota, they see a trainer in a wheelchair and they realize, ‘We can do this.’”
“This is another way for me to feel really young,” Smith said.
And if she sees anybody get down or frustrated, she tells them her slogan: “Know your limits — then break them.”
Randall Beach can be reached at or 789-5766.

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