FORT KENT, Maine — There’s an athlete like Robbie Hebert on every high school team around the country. He’s the one who keeps the tempo upbeat and provides a constant source of humor and inspiration on and off the track.
A member of the Fort Kent Community High School track and field team, Hebert does stand out from his peers in another way.
Born with spina bifida, which prevents the bones of the spine from forming properly around the spinal cord, the 17-year-old athlete is unable to participate in track races by running like his teammates.
Not that he’s letting that stop him.
In 2011 the Maine Principals’ Association elected to allow athletes with permanent physical disabilities who use a wheelchair to compete in state high school track meets in the 100- and 400-meter dashes, the 800- and 1,600-meter runs, the shot put and discus and established a separate set of points criteria for those athletes.
According to Hebert’s coach, Jamie Pelletier, it’s not unusual for the young man to be the only wheelchair athlete on the track. Pelletier noted that Hebert consistently posts strong finishes despite using his everyday wheelchair for competition.
All that changed Friday when about 100 of Hebert’s teammates, friends, family and high school staff surprised him with the presentation of a brand new, state-of-the-art racing wheelchair.
Funds for the $5,000 custom-made ride were raised through a “Make a Difference Day” project spearheaded by the local chapter of Catholic Financial Life.
While his twin brother Randy kept Robbie distracted, the chair was delivered to the high school gym Friday afternoon, and moments later Robbie was ushered in amid cheers and applause.
Soon after, with the help of his father and friends, Robbie was transferred into the racing chair and zooming around the gym, his progress easy to track by the shrieks and laughter stemming from his near misses with people as he worked to figure out the rig’s steering.
“This is pretty awesome,” Hebert said, taking a brief break from the test ride around the gym. “But it does handle totally different from my other chair.”
The racing wheelchair is the same one used by international paralympians and features three wheels with a very low profile.
“It’s a lot faster,” Hebert said. “There is no wobble to it whatsoever.”
That “wobble,” according to Pelletier, was common in his everyday chair and added rolling resistance as he raced on the tracks.
“His regular chair really slowed him down a lot,” she said. “Over the last three years he has pushed through so much adversity and worked so hard to race with that older and heavier chair [and] he always has such a good attitude and is so positive.”
When training with his teammates, Hebert enthusiastically participates in all drills — including hill work — with a smile and determination, Pelletier added.
“He never asks me to tone it down,” she said. “He always wants to work as hard as his peers.”
That work ethic, coupled with his sense of humor, has made Hebert an integral part of the team, and those teammates were every bit as excited about the new racing wheelchair.
“He really deserves this,” Sam Ouellette, a sophomore on the team, said. “He’s such a character and always putting a smile on people’s faces [but] at the track meets he is very serious about racing.”
One of the bigger challenges in the fundraising project, which began last fall, was keeping it a secret from Hebert.
“It is so exciting seeing Robbie get this racing chair,” senior team member Faith Morneault said. “Everything he has done is such a huge accomplishment and this is going to make such a difference in his racing [and] it’s so exciting we were able to keep it a secret.”
Stephen Clark of Acadia Medical Supply in Fort Fairfield has worked fitting Robbie Hebert to wheelchairs since he was a little boy and on Friday could not be happier to deliver the racing chair.
“This is a custom-built chair just for Robbie based on his measurements,” Clark said. “I had to take several measurements and did so under the guise of telling him he had to do some work on his current chair.”
Made by Tampa-based Top End Wheelchairs, the chair is designed to run only on racing tracks or other smooth surfaces.
“This is not a street or off-road machine,” Clark said.
That meant Hebert was taking full advantage of the wide open space of the Fort Kent high school’s gym Friday afternoon to get in as much rolling time as possible on his new rig.
“I don’t think we are going to be able to get him to come home,” his mother, Lise Hebert, said with a laugh as her son took yet another lap around the room, narrowly missing a wall and a group of friends. “He is really enjoying this.”
What would have been Hebert’s last race of his high school career was rained out on Friday, meaning the athlete will get to use the racing chair at least once in high school competition when the meet takes place this coming week.
Not that it will mark the end of his racing career.
“I plan to keep on racing after high school,” he said.
But on Friday, his sights were set just three days ahead to the upcoming meet as he mastered the steering and braking of the chair.
“I will be all set for Monday,” he vowed.