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'I'm just an athlete,' says Hudson teen from his wheelchair

HUDSON — Joey Chiavaroli hated physical therapy.

Just five years old and Joey wanted none of it.

"I hated going," said Joey, now 13, who suffers from spina bifida, a developmental birth defect that results in an incompletely formed spinal cord. "I used to wear these braces that was like a body suit that my legs go in the bottom. I would have a walker and I would wiggle side to side and my legs would kick out.

"And I absolutely hated that."

So one day, eight years ago after leaving therapy, Joey and his parents passed this track in Temple Terrace. There was a group of kids doing a slalom course.

They were in wheelchairs.

Since that day, Joey has been wheelchair racing. He also does archery, track and field events, table tennis — anything his wheelchair won't prevent him from doing, he does.

It's not as though he sits around and mopes about himself. He rides, slides and glides in his chair, hopping 12-inch curbs or looking for a speed bump to jump.

"I think of myself (as anyone else) except my legs don't work," Joey said smiling from his wheelchair. "My chair, that's my legs. I'm all here, but my legs don't work. I can basically do anything anyone else does."

Having a wheelchair hasn't stopped him from excelling as an athlete either. Joey competes nationally at the National Junior Disability Championships. He's placed, medaled and won there numerous times already, including winning first place in the small team division with teammate Jerry Lauer.

Joey also runs the Gasparilla 15K each year, just as he's planning on doing in February.

"I hate the term special," the Hudson resident said with disgust in his voice. "A lot of people come up to and I tell them about my racing., and they go 'Oh, you're in Special Olympics.' No, I'm not. That's different. Those have mental disabilities. I have to set them straight.

"Kids like me, who are physically challenged, we go to the Paralympics. We're not the same."

Finding those wheelchair racers that day had to be fate. That's what Joey's mom, Lesli Richardson, figures. When they realized it could potentially replace therapy, there was no reason to stop him.

So a deal was struck. If Joey kept to sports to keep his body strong, he could stay away from therapy for good.

"He's always been a work smart, not hard kind of kid," Richardson said. "Once he got into a wheelchair and realized how much faster he could go instead of the walking braces, that was it. There was no stopping him. So once we found out about the sports, it was a no-brainer for him to do it.

"There are so many parents that have disabled children that treat them with kid gloves. That they're so fragile. He's not fragile. The only thing that's wrong with him is that he has to use a wheelchair.

"He's a normal kid. He's just a teenager. There's been no reason to give him extra special treatment."

One thing about people who suffer from spina bifida is they usually lack muscle tone. It takes times to build it as opposed to Paralympians who lose a limb or become disabled later in life.

Joey, in his wheelchair, will continue to live a normal life.

"See, I'm just an athlete," Joey said. "I may not be like a regular player or what not, but I can still do things. I've never let anything stop me and I don't think I ever will."


Joey Chiavaroli

Age: 13

School: Home schooled

Sports: wheelchair racing, javelin, discus, shot put, swimming, table tennis

'I'm just an athlete,' says Hudson teen from his wheelchair 11/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 12:20pm]
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