The Maine Principals’ Association has offered to provide two options for a Leavitt Area High School student who wants to compete in his wheelchair at the regional and state championship cross-country meets this month.
After a revised request from Leavitt principal Eben Shaw was presented to the MPA, the organization agreed to allow sophomore Jon Schomaker to participate in the Oct. 26 regional championship meet on a modified course during a separate race.
The MPA, which had expressed concerns about the safety of all participants in regard to potential falls or collisions, agreed the request would allow the student an opportunity to participate while taking those factors out of the equation.
In addition to an exhibition race, the MPA also offered a separate wheelchair division for the regional and state championship meets. According to a release, the state meet is conducted on the same day and place for all three classes, so a wheelchair division could include athletes from any member schools.
Under this proposal, wheelchair athletes would be eligible to compete for a medal at both events.
“We believe these two options offer safety as well as the opportunity to participate,” MPA Executive Director of the Interscholastic Division Mike Burnham said. “While this young man has participated in cross-country races during the season without mishap, the Twin Brook course, where this year’s championships will be held, with its uneven terrain, steep hills, sharp turns, that can be slippery and muddy if there’s rain before or during the race, will be very challenging.
“Add to that the volume of runners at a statewide meet, and we all agreed that the safety concerns were too great to meet an initial request that he race with the entire complement of runners,” Burnham added.
Earlier this fall, Leavitt athletics administrator Ryan LaRoche requested that Schomaker be allowed to compete with the other participants at the regional championships. After consulting with the U.S. Paralympics, Adaptive Sports of New England, and the National Federation of State High Schools, as well as the MPA’s Cross Country Committee, Sports Medicine Committee, and Interscholastic Management Committee, it was determined that having him on the course, as it is set up, and alongside more than 100 other runners, would be unsafe both to him and the other runners.
“I believe the options provided to Leavitt Area High School by the MPA are extremely reasonable and, most important, safe for all concerned,” said Dr. William Heinz, a medical orthopedist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of sports related injuries, who advises the MPA on sports medicine. “I understand the emotions involved, but the safety of all students should be paramount.”
Burnham pointed out that the Twin Brooks course is not only narrow in places, but loops back on itself so runners can encounter each other going in both directions.
“Having him race a modified course that would trail the rest of the runners, however, is much safer,” Burnham said, “as would having him compete in a wheelchair division. We want all student athletes to be able to participate.”
Burnham pointed out that the MPA worked with Schomaker last winter to develop standards for wheelchair competition in indoor track. The MPA has sponsored a wheelchair division in outdoor track for several years and he believes the organization can develop a similar program for cross country.
The MPA’s research on the cross-country issue found no other state in the country that allows wheelchair athletes to compete in high school cross country alongside other runners and cited concerns about the safety of both the wheelchair athletes and other runners as the reason.
“The MPA has worked diligently with the school to find an accommodation for our athlete that allows him to participate and that also takes into consideration his safety and that of the many other athletes who will be on the course racing,” Leavitt principal Eben Shaw said. “The MPA gave us these two options, which we believe are excellent means of achieving everyone’s desired outcome, and we’ll make a decision soon [about which one to pursue].”