The Grand Rapids Eagles

Mike Chambers & Chelsea Perry.



Dan, Nick, and Max.

We found an aerie of Eagles near the intersection of Knapp and the East Beltline in Grand Rapids this week. The Grand Rapids Eagles Disabled Sports Team holds regular practices every Tuesday night from 6:00 to 7:30 pm at the Kent Education Center (part of the Kent Intermediate School District’s campus), at 1800 Leffingwell NE. The Eagles train every week starting in October in preparation for the Victory Games held at MSU in May. The Victory Games are an annual competition for similar athletes from all over Michigan.
The first Eagle to sail into view was Mike Chambers. Chambers, who graduated from Kenowa Hills in 2004, has been a part of the Eagles for ten years and has been serving as the vice-president of the group for three years. Mike is a young man on a mission and he has ton of energy. Muscular Dystrophy might keep him confined to a wheelchair, but it cannot keep him down.
"I am not a pity party kind of guy," Mike said.
Mike is a lot of things: he is a pioneer, a motivator, an organizer, an athlete, and it is a treat to watch him in action. Mike was the first student to attend school in a wheelchair in the Kenowa Hills District and he was the only one from fifth grade until his junior year. He grew up with an older brother, Jason, who lettered in football and track and he wanted to get involved in sports. Fortunately Mike found the Eagles when he was just 11 years old. By the time he entered high school he had competed at the Victory Games more than once and qualified for national competition.
It took a combination of patience and persistence, but Mike ended up with a total of nine varsity letters from Kenowa. (Four each for bowling and track and one for academics.) The letters were awarded to him in recognition of his participation with the Eagles.
Chambers loves to compete in the track and field events. For him this includes the high toss, soft discus and soft shot, precision toss, and a couple of events requiring skillful maneuvering of his wheel chair. While the events for the Eagle athletes differ from traditional events, do not make the mistake of thinking that they are not a serious bunch of competitors. The Eagles differ from Special Olympics in that their focus on going to the Victory Games is to win and bring home a medal.
"I originally came for the social aspects of being here," said Max Loughrin, a sophomore at Forest Hills Eastern. "But I am such a competitive person that it really appealed to me."
Max explained that he enjoys socializing with able bodied people and recognizes the importance of doing so. At the same time he realizes great benefits when he is able to spend time with his Eagle friends who can fully relate to the challenges of life in a wheel chair. One doesn’t have to be in a wheelchair to be an Eagle – the only requirement is a "primary physical diagnosis".
Dan Saur is another Eagle from Forest Hills Eastern. Dan goes by a couple of different names: his Eagle friends call him "The Boccie King" because he is the state champion in throwing Boccie balls. He is also consistently in the top ten in the high toss event at the Victory Games. Students at FHE call him "Dan the weather man", because he uses his Dynavox (a computerized speaking aid) to bring the weather report to his fellow Hawks every day as part of the announcements.
Dan has been an Eagle for five years now. His dad, Chuck, is the current president of the club and brother Nick, an FHE sophomore, can be found helping Dan and others every week. Nick is preparing for a new role with his brother. For twelve years Chuck Saur has been pushing Dan in a three wheeler over an eight mile course every September, but he is ready to let Nick take over.
Max Loughrin is in his third season as an Eagle. He enjoys his math and psychology classes in school. Schoolwork is important to Max – his GPA is 3.95. He competes in the soft discuss, precision toss, the slalom and 60 meter weave, and he loves to bowl. Max bowls using a ramp which is attached to his wheelchair, but he was quick to point out that using a ramp is not a guarantee for bowling strikes.
"The ball goes where it wants to, "he joked. "Bowling with a ramp is not that easy."
Comstock Park junior Chelsea Perry is in a wheelchair as a result of spina bifida – which means part of her spine was open and she has "L3-4 paralysis" which affects her from the knees down.
Chelsea keeps her body on the go constantly. We know for sure that she competes in at least three different sports: swimming, wheelchair basketball, and sled hockey. Because of her mobility and upper body strength, Chelsea is able to get in and out of the pool on her own. She swims freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke in 25, 50, and 100 meter lengths.
If you have ever seen a wheelchair basketball game, then you know what kind of effort Chelsea puts forth in that sport. The sport of sled hockey really caught our attention; especially when Ms. Perry went on to describe it as "a co-ed, full contact sport" played with pads and a helmet. To demonstrate her point, Chelsea showed us a pretty good sized bruise on her leg she brought home from hockey practice at the Griffins Ice House last Saturday. She plays for Michigan’s first youth sled hockey team: The Grand Rapids Sledwings.
Chelsea’s dad, Tim, is one of the coaches of the Sledwings which brings to the forefront the participation and dedication of parents and other family members. The Eagles fly thanks to their own efforts and the help of family, friends, and volunteers. It can take as many as three able bodied people to be on hand for one athlete at the Victory Games. Mike Chambers would not be at every practice without the help of his dad, Bob. Dan Saur has the faithful support of his brother and his dad. We met Mary Ann Weaver as she and her son Matthew were leaving practice to return home to Paw Paw. Matthew is a senior at Paw Paw High and has been involved with the Eagles since the fifth grade. He and his mom told Chuck Saur about the program and got Dan involved.
If anyone is interested in getting together with a bunch of high flying Eagle athletes on Tuesday nights, the door is open.
Mike Chambers said, "Anybody with a disability who has a desire for a sporting or socializing opportunity – no matter what your ability level may be – should come and check us out. We will adapt any of the events to the person if need be."
The Eagles are a non-profit, 501C3, organization that does not receive any state or federal funding. Taking an athlete to the Victory Games in May costs a minimum of $240 for each one. Anyone who is interested in supporting the Eagles can reach Mike Chambers via e-mail at chairman86@comcast.net.
The Eagles have grown from a group of ten to around 40 regular participants, but rest assured they have room in their nest for more.
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