Nine-year old Zach Wharton loves to cheer on his older brother as he plays in various baseball tournaments throughout the year.
This week, it’s his turn to hear the cheers.
Wharton suffers from spina bifida, a birth disorder in which the spine does not close properly, and is one of the athletes participating in this week’s National Junior Disabled Sports Championships at various sites throughout Mesa.
And he’ll be all over the field this week as he participates in wheelchair racing, the javelin throw, the shot put and the softball throw.
"It gives him something to compete in," said Cindy Wharton, Zach’s mother and a Mesa resident. "It gives them a lot of confidence and shows them the things they are able to do. Zachary is one of the younger guys on the team and he gets to look up to all the big guys and aspires to be like them."
The event serves as host for more than 250 athletes with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 21 and covers 40 states and four foreign countries.
Phoenix resident Adam Schmuki is 13 years old and suffers from a tethered spinal cord. When he participates in three track events this week, he’ll find a much more level playing field than he did a few years ago on the baseball diamonds.
"He quit playing Little League (baseball) when he was about 9 years old," Adam’s father, Al, said. "He was being picked on. . . . Playing baseball made his grades go down."
Parents of athletes participating in the event encouraged other parents of children with disabilities to become involved for a multitude of reasons.
"It does three things," said Tempe resident Deb Morgan, who works in the medical field and is the mother of 13-year-old Lucy, an athlete who suffers from cerebral palsy. "It is proven good exercise for someone who is physically challenged. Second, it provides socialization for (Lucy) as she meets with other kids like her. And third, the parents also have a chance to meet one another and develop support networks."
Peoria resident Debbie Hightower was taking her son Erik to a routine spina bifida conference 10 years ago when she overheard a few parents talking about the competition for children afflicted with a disability. He’s taken part in events ever since.
"Often, many people look at kids and think just because they’re in wheelchairs that they’re helpless," Debbie Hightower said. "They’re independent and they like to show their independence. This is a great forum for them to do that."
Erik is now 18 and attends Glendale Cactus High School. He also suffers from spina bifida and walks on crutches. Like many of the athletes, he is able to compete because of a specialized, three-wheeled racing chair.
But, money is an issue for events of this type.
"We just do whatever we can to raise the money," Debbie Hightower said. "We did a car wash and helped raise money for him to attend (an event) in Oklahoma City. There are a lot of events he could go to if we could afford it. You just have to pick and choose which events to go to. Usually, this is our vacation. We need more corporate sponsors. It would be awesome if these kids could compete more."
National Junior Disabled Sports Championships
What: More than 250 athletes with disabilities from 40 states and four foreign countries competing in events including track and field, weightlifting, pentathlon, archery, swimming, table tennis, boccia ball and 3-on-3 basketball.
When: Now through Saturday Where: Various sites in Mesa