How do you keep your body in motion? Do you body-build in the gym, take a light jog around the block, or use a track wheelchair for racing 400m dashes? Maria Velat, an eighteen-year-old quadriplegic athlete, has a drive for sports and nothing will stop her.
Ever since childhood, sports were part of Velat’s identity. She played soccer, ran cross country, skied, and sailed. “All of my family does sports, so it’s kind of always been a part of my life. Once I started school, I started joining teams,” Velat said.
Velat ran for the Houghton High School Gremlins in varsity as captain of her team. She consistently held places in the top of results for cross country races. In the 2018 season, she made a personal record of 20:27.3 for the Women’s 5,000 Meters Varsity.
It wasn’t until later in her sports career that Velat needed to change her approach. On October 2, 2019, Velat was transported to an Ann Arbor, Michigan hospital and diagnosed with transverse myelitis. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains transverse myelitis is spinal cord inflammation. The spinal cord is responsible for sending messages from the brain to our nerves and sensory information back to the brain. It tells our body how and where to move, for example when you need to move your fingers to grab a plate. Our skin can feel when a pan is hot because our nerves tell the brain about that sensation. Transverse myelitis interrupts this connection between the brain and nerves, and now that they can’t communicate, it will be hard for a person to move or feel.
The next step after hospitalization and recovery for Velat was returning to the field.
“I had to figure out a way to do sports kind of differently than I was used to. So, I found the world of adaptive sports,” said Velat. From running to hand-cycling, she found different ways to get back on the track through equipment such as track wheelchairs and sit-skis. She said adaptive sports are a different way to do sports but still in the same spirit.
“There are a lot of ups and downs with being disabled and fighting a system that isn’t really built for you, but once you have any small successes, it really helps bring you back up, and then you see that you can have more successes in the future.”
The change from running to wheels wasn’t the only hurdle Velat faced during her comeback. Michigan’s sports system itself presented quite a challenge. Velat learned she could participate in events but couldn’t score any points for her team.
A petition intended to change this Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) rule says, “Almost every state has some model in place to allow adaptive athletes the same opportunities for placing and advancement, but Michigan and thirteen other states do not.” Participating in a sport means being part of a team, and if you can’t contribute, you feel left out–a problem experienced by many para-athletes.
Velat and other supporters pushed for a proposal to include adaptive athletes in races and to be able to score points for their teams.
The MHSAA responded to their efforts. On January 26, 2022, a MHSAA committee hearing concluded an adaptive category needs to be set up before adaptive athletes can earn points for teams. There was no consensus on allowing team scoring in this category, however, future discussion on this is being considered. In the meanwhile, MHSAA decided wheelchair athletes can compete in regionals and finals in a few events, but cannot score points.
“I’m still pushing to have [races] be more inclusive and have an ambulatory category so that people with amputations or cerebral palsy can also be in finals, and also get that point system in place so it’s really being part of the team and not just running alongside it,” said Velat.
The Keweenaw Community SparkPlug Awards recognized Velat’s efforts to improve adaptive sports in her community, and she was nominated as the Youth Contributor of the Year. She urges others to become involved in their communities as well.
“There are lots of local programs. If there aren’t any local programs, it’s not that hard to just find adaptive equipment and get other people to start it,” Velat said. For example, the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA) supports aspiring athletes with disabilities by lending aid and sports equipment. Velat’s community held a sled hockey clinic in which over a hundred people participated.
“If you see someone who you think might like adaptive sports, just let them know about it because they might not even know that it exists.”
Velat will take her ambitions to the University of Michigan and pursue medicine, specifically neurology. Inspired by her own experience, she wants to help people and learn more about how the brain and body work. She will also be part of the new adaptive track and field team, noting that very few colleges have an adaptive sports program.
“[The University of Michigan] has taken initiative in the local schools to get adaptive sports into the gym programs. I’m really hoping to get kids into it so they can start earlier,” said Velat. During college, she plans to continue working on the proposal to improve the MHSAA rules.
During hardships, Velat says it’s important to set a goal for yourself and work towards it. Training her body to do sports differently was a huge shift, and having family, friends, and the community support encouraged her to keep moving forward.
“Just consider other people’s situations, and if you find something you’re passionate about, just work towards that goal, especially if it’s something that can help you with your own health or helps other people.”
Julia Seitz is a Northern Michigan University student pursing a Bachelor of Arts. You’ll find her either writing creative fiction or researching a new fixation. She enjoys reading scary stories, but is too scared to watch horror movies.
Excerpted from the Fall 2022 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2022, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.