Headed to States, Seated Athletes Strive for Equality Around the Track

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Micah Beckwith buckles the second footstrap to his racing wheelchair as the rest of the boys and girls on the Boardman High School track and field team roamed around the 100-yard turf football field and 400-meter oval track.

The senior athlete rotates his arms in a circle as his vehicle rolls around the track a couple of times. Beckwith eventually heads off to the weight room to enhance his upper body muscles, preparing for the June 4-5 state meet at Hillard Darby High School. Beckwith qualified for state in the shot put, 100-, 400- and 800-meter events as the seated athletes compete as part of the Division I state meet. The Division II and III meets are at other Columbus-area high schools.

His work ethic has been a focal point of this Spartan program. Rainy and snowy weather earlier this month or the summer-like humidity enveloping the Mahoning Valley on Thursday didn’t matter to Beckwith, says John Phillips, Boardman High School head boys track and field coach.

“It makes your excuse seem really poor if you don’t want to work,” he says.

These wheelchair-based events were started in 2013 by the Ohio High School Athletic Association to incorporate more athletes into the sport, starting as co-ed races for a couple of years and eventually expanding into boys and girls divisions for each of the four aforementioned events. Canfield junior athlete Cody Piver joins Beckwith at state in everything but the 800.

About eight years ago, Beckwith underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord. During surgery, one of the vertebrae pressed down on the cord for too long eventually leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Beckwith’s story doesn’t end there.

He eventually made his way to Adaptive Sports Ohio and tried competing in track and field before high school. For him, it “kind of felt natural.” It convinced him to come out for the Boardman High School team, making him the first seated athlete in this area.

Boardman Local Schools provides adaptive transportation for Beckwith when he goes to these events, adding an aid to help him on and off the bus. The throwers and some other field events personnel make the trip with the Spartan senior to various team events.

Eventually at these events, he began beating some able-bodied freshmen and sophomores in the 800. Phillips says you could always see Beckwith’s wry smile after those races.

“It’s always good to see their faces after,” Beckwith says of his beaten competitors.

Piver attends Mahoning County Career and Technical Center near Canfield High School, studying cybersecurity networking and specializing in information technology. He looks to attend Ohio State University after high school graduation then pursue a master’s degree at the University of Illinois.

For now, the focused young man never lets his spina bifida dictate his future path. It was that way as Canfield head boys and girls track and field coach Nick Wagner handed him a weighted shot put. Piver heaves the metallic sphere from a seated position and his normal chair, saying he has to pivot a bit to properly throw.

His path to track started when he was training for taekwondo, eventually training to run 12 times around the 400-meter all-weather track. High school track was a way to stay in shape for those endurance runs.

Canfield High School junior athlete Cody Piver throws the shot put from a seated position during Thursday’s practice with Coach Nick Wagner.

Piver races with a rented racing wheelchair from Adaptive Sports Ohio, but is looking to raise money for a better mode of transportation around the oval surface. A fundraiser for Beckwith in the summer of 2019 landed the Boardman senior an aerodynamic chair costing around $7,000.

“This team, this community is behind him, which we’ve always been,” Phillips says.

Putting the lost season of 2020 behind them is something both athletes want to do in 2021 as Beckwith didn’t get to break in his chair until this year. Piver had to wait another year to return to the state meet he qualified for in 2019.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Piver says.

Meanwhile, Wagner hopes other track and field coaches see potential seated athletes in their schools, giving them opportunities afforded to Piver and Beckwith.

The top 18 qualifying times and throws for each of the four events on the boys and girls side advance athletes to state. Each of these participants must log those marks during the regular season. There are no more than 11 competitors in each of the eight events for boys and girls, with as few as six in some.

The OHSAA scores these events like they would in other events that don’t involve seated athletes. Unlike their able-bodied competitors, these people do not have their points tallied with their team. The team with the most points in the regular season or postseason wins the championship. Wagner says seated athletes must be put on a level playing field, not solely be on display.

“Now those kids have a chance to be a leading point scorer on the team because they’ve worked as hard as any other athlete,” Wagner says. “I think that may be an incentive to get kids out as well if the OHSAA made it part of the team scoring as in pole vault, as in every other event.”

Beckwith says he’s attending Youngstown State University after high school, which is one of many schools across the nation that do not have adaptive track and field events. Only a few around the United States such as Illinois offer those programs.

Boardman High School throws coach John Pallini says other colleges should offer this to seated athletes.

“There has to be some kind of federal funding out there,” he says. “This would be a good thing to have for a college, giving athletes more opportunities.”

Pictured at top: Boardman High School senior Micah Beckwith finishes one lap around the track during Thursday’s practice at Spartan Stadium.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.