DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — As Robbie Hebert circled the eight-lane track at Oakes Field on Saturday, a trail of cheers followed from beyond the nearby fence and steadily grew in volume until he crossed the finish line just beyond the main grandstand.
They were cheers he could barely imagine having time to savor as recently as 10 days ago when that 400-meter lap around the track would have taken him an arduous 3 minutes to cover in a conventional wheelchair.
But the Fort Kent Community High School senior, newly armed with a racing wheelchair he barely had time to acquaint himself with, suddenly felt as much like a sprinter as the runners he shared the stage with during the Class C outdoor track and field state championships.
Hebert completed the metric quarter-mile in 1 minute, 46.18 seconds, more than a minute faster than he has ever completed the distance before.
“It’s basically like a bike, but when you steer it you have to push it like a wheelchair at the same time,” said Hebert, who was born with spina bifida, which prevents the bones of the spine from forming properly around the spinal cord. “You have to basically multitask.
“But I think I’m getting the hang of it.”
The 17-year-old Hebert also competed in the 100-meter run and shot put, and is believed to be just the second wheelchair athlete to compete in a high school state championship track and field meet in Maine, joining Christina Kouros of Cape Elizabeth.
And his times for the 400 (1 minute, 46.18 seconds) and 100 (26.10 seconds) and his shot put distance (11 feet, 2 inches) now are recognized by the Maine Principals’ Association as state records in the wheelchair division.
“Robbie started three years ago and his other wheelchair wasn’t doing it but he works just as hard as any other team member,” said Bonita Cairns, an educational technician at the school who works with Hebert. “When his teammates do their hill workouts he won’t let the coach modify them for him, he does the same as everybody else and keeps up.
“He deserves to win because the effort is always there.”
The MPA in 2011 opened up its state track meets to athletes with permanent physical disabilities who use a wheelchair to compete in the 100- and 400-meter dashes, the 800- and 1,600-meter runs, the shot put and discus after consulting rules and regulations established in other states and working closely with Wheelchair Track & Field USA to establish qualifying standards.
“Providing opportunities for those students who are wheelchair bound is the goal,” said MPA Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham. “To give them the chance to participate with their able-bodied teammates and represent themselves and their schools is really what it’s all about.
“It was heartwarming seeing [Hebert] compete and seeing people’s reactions to him being able to compete.”
Hebert might not have gotten the chance to compete in all of his events at the state meet but for the generosity of his community.
The $5,000 needed to purchase the custom-made, three-wheeled racing wheelchair was raised unbeknownst to Hebert through a Make a Difference Day project spearheaded by the local chapter of Catholic Financial Life.
Hebert received the new chair during a surprise assembly at his school on May 26, and he immediately began trying it out in the school gymnasium.
“It’s very, very different,” said Hebert. “There’s no more wobbling like the other wheelchair so I go faster, and the steering’s different because you don’t steer with both wheels. You have to steer with the front wheel.”
Hebert had little opportunity to practice with his new chair in an effort to qualify for states in the 100 and 400, but the postponement of the Penobscot Valley Conference small-school championship meet from that Friday until the next Monday provided additional familiarization time before he made his competitive debut with the racing wheelchair.
“He tried it out in the gym at our school on Friday, but the first time he actually rode it was at PVCs,” said Pelletier. “He practices in the gym a little bit because he’s not really supposed to use it outside, but there’s no lanes in the gym or on our track so instead he just gets to a meet and says, ‘I’m going to go out and practice now.’
“With this chair he just glides, not that it’s effortless but it’s effortless compared to his other chair. His other chair he had to push hard, and with this chair he’s just cruising along like a runner just cruising down the track. The other chair was a workout for him.”
That workout required to race his traditional wheelchair actually may have helped Hebert qualify for the states in the shot put, as the upper-body strength he developed in part by training in the other chair has enabled him to compete successfully in that throwing event.
He’s a crazy athlete,” said Pelletier. “You might not think he would be because it’s all upper body, but he’s so strong. He grabs you and you’re like, ‘OK Rob, you’re strong.’”
“His sophomore year when they first came out with the wheelchair events he tried the shot put and didn’t do real well with it and said, ‘That’s not for me, I’m not good at it.’ But he just got bigger upper-body wise and tried it again, and in the first meet he qualified for states and that really pumped him up.”
But Hebert’s lasting impression on his teammates, his school and his community may have less to do with times and distances — although he plans to compete in paralympic events after graduation — than it does with his persistence and his persona as evidenced by his selection by his peers as a team captain this spring.
“I think Robbie doesn’t realize he’s an inspiration to the team, to him he’s just out there racing,” said Pelletier. “He puts everything he has into racing. He doesn’t complain, he does the same workouts as the other kids. He goes up the hills, he goes around the track and it’s a dirt track so it’s like resistance training for him but you never hear a peep out of him.
“I think to the rest of the kids, just his example inspires them.”