“What’s special about (wheelchair) lacrosse is that it has opened up doors for guys who haven’t been really interested in anything (since their injury). They’re here because they love lacrosse,” said Baker, a 38-year-old paraplegic who organized the nation’s first wheelchair lacrosse league here 16 months ago. “It’s different. It’s new. And, it’s a blessing, because it gives them the opportunity to get involved.”
Creating new opportunities for himself and others, plus staying involved in the athletic and disabled communities, have been Baker’s focus since a car accident crushed his spinal cord 20 years ago.
Baker was a founding member of the Sharp Healthcare Rehabilitation men’s spinal cord injury support group. He worked with the state’s Access to Independence committee to help get institutionalized disabled people into independent community settings. He also volunteers as a peer mentor for newly injured patients at Sharp Rehab.
His spirit and courage haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this month he was recognized at Sharp HealthCare Foundation’s 2010 Victories of Spirit awards, honoring five rehabilitation patients for their strength and conviction.
“I try to give (other disabled people) some confidence and show them what’s possible,” said Ryan. “Even more than the doctors and nurses, it was the other guys in wheelchairs who gave me the information I needed and really showed me how to do things after my injury. Those are the ones I owe.”
Always looking for new challenges, “the idea of wheelchair lacrosse just lived in the back of my head,” Baker said. “I thought, if I’m pushing (a wheelchair) with a tennis racket in my hand, what would keep me from using a lacrosse stick?”
The problem was there was no venue. There were no rules. There were no players. But obstacles that would have deterred most other people only made the idea more exciting to Baker.
After some research, calls to the U.S. Lacrosse Association in Baltimore, and plenty of lacrosse viewing on TV, Baker and his pals spread the word to other paraplegics. About two weeks later, “we had eight guys in wheelchairs with sticks playing lacrosse on a tennis court. It was great,” Baker said.
It didn’t take long for the news to get out that there was a new game in town. Soon more players began showing up, and teams were formed. But the real momentum came when South Swell Sports, a chain of Southern California shops specializing in lacrosse gear, donated $5,000 worth of equipment to Baker’s newly formed sports team.
Now these wheelchair athletes looked like the real deal with official helmets, sticks, shoulder pads, elbow pads and enough equipment to outfit 14 players.
In April 2009, wheelchair lacrosse became official when Baker took the show on the road and his lacrosse teammates performed a demonstration game at the Abilities Expo in Anaheim. Since then, Baker and the lacrosse officiating association have been working to develop a rule book for the new sport, which should be published by the end of July.
“We plan to have camps, clinics and demos to give exposure to the sport,” he said. “We hope that other (disabled athletes) will enjoy it enough to start a team of their own. Our dream is to do this on a national level.”
Although he’s always been an enthusiastic athlete, both in and out of a wheelchair, Baker says the team spirit that comes with playing lacrosse is a new and inspiring experience.
“Everything I’ve done before this -snow skiing, hitting golf balls, sailing, surfing- it’s all individual sports or activities,” he said. “Lacrosse is a team-oriented game, and it’s all about working together, developing relationships and learning more about myself through the other players. I really like that.”
Article taken from the Union Tribune, Sunday, June 20, 2010