ZEPHYRHILLS — Scarlett Lawhorne doesn’t know how far she’ll throw the shot put in today’s Class 3A state adapted track meet in Jacksonville. The Zephyrhills sophomore doesn’t know if she’ll earn a coveted gold medal.
But she can guess the reactions from the able-bodied onlookers as they watch the 15-year-old chuck a metal ball from her wheelchair.
“When they see me do it, they’re like, ‘Oh, she really can do it. It’s a miracle…’ ” Lawhorne said. “ ‘Like, she doesn’t have three heads.’”
Lawhorne has grown accustomed to stares. She was born with spina bifida, a congenital spinal cord disorder that left her legs paralyzed. She can move the rest of her body, but the condition forces her to travel in a wheelchair.
From an early age, her family taught her to be independent. Her mother, Scarlett Smith, remembers the glares from strangers when she wouldn’t help her 5-year-old daughter wheel her way over a tall curb. Smith wanted Lawhorne to learn to do it herself — and she did.
“Since the beginning, we always tried to tell her you can do anything you want to,” Smith said. “You just may have to do it a little bit differently than everyone else. I think she’s kind of taken that to heart.”
That includes sports.
Lawhorne got involved in athletic organizations for disabled children when she was 5. She has worked with Andy Chasanoff at Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay for about eight years, trying everything from archery to track to basketball.
“The focus of our program has always been on ability, not disability,” Chasanoff said. “I think that translates to many of our athletes, and Scarlett’s a prime example.”
By 2004, Lawhorne was competing in local and national adapted sports competitions. She earned medals in the National Junior Disability Championships. She made a layup on a regulation-height basketball goal — and showed the security-camera footage to her friends. She qualified for state with a throw of 12 feet, 6 inches at regionals — 9 inches shy of her personal record — and will participate in next week’s Dixie Games in Tampa.
“It lets me be me,” Lawhorne said of athletics. “It’s like my medicine.”
Lawhorne didn’t initially like the shot put. It was too simple. But after years of training, she began to appreciate the sport’s intricacies.
Lawhorne climbs from her regular wheelchair to a special chair designed for the sport. She grabs a bar with her left hand and leans back, forward and back again. She twists her torso and lets out a grunt as she launches the ball from her right hand.
Her time with other disabled athletes forged friendships and taught her valuable lessons from older children — like what to do when a classmate calls you a baby or wonders if you can brush your teeth or dress yourself (she can do both).
“They can be very cruel if you don’t know how to handle yourself,” Lawhorne said. “If you let them get to you, it’ll bring you down.”
Even now friends comment on her Facebook status, wondering how she can participate in track meets. Other spectators congratulate her after every throw — even ones that fall far short of her goals. Lawhorne masks her disappointment long enough to say thanks.
Lawhorne will have another teammate with her this weekend. Bulldogs sprinter Kara Young is seeded 11th in the 100 meters (12.39 seconds) after qualifying for state on a swollen foot. She spent part of this week training in the pool but said she’s ready to vie for a top-eight finish in Jacksonville.
“I’m kind of excited about (today),” Young said with a smile.
So is Lawhorne, who has become a mentor for some of the younger athletes on her club team. She waited almost 30 minutes to practice one day this week as Zephyrhills coach Jason Rouser and two friends helped tie down her purple chair with red straps.
Lawhorne threw for only a few minutes — she’ll get plenty of work this weekend. Rouser reminded her that to throw the ball out, she has to throw it high. And to throw it high, she must keep her head up until the very end.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When: Class 3A, today; Class 4A, Saturday
Where: University of North Florida, Jacksonville
Schedule: 4x800 relay and field events, 1 p.m.; running event preliminaries, 4 p.m.; running event finals, 6:30 p.m.