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Palm Harbor man swims toward Paralympic trials

A 1986 sports accident left him unable to walk. But in June, he plans to swim in the trials at Indianapolis.

One day in 1986, Stephen Ambrose was playing a league basketball game with some buddies from work on a court in Los Angeles.

His life seemed great. He had graduated from a business college and had a good job as a salesman for American Express. In his spare time he competed in triathlons, once finishing 30th in a competition in Tallahassee.

Then, in the time it takes to bounce a ball, he was lying flat on the court. Another player had run him down, causing him to fall and smack the back of his head on the floor.

Instantly, he was partially paralyzed. A blood clot formed on his brain stem. The portion of his brain that controls speech was damaged, making his words unintelligible.

Though he had feeling in his body and has since regained some limited movement, he couldn't control his limbs.

But with effort, he could swim. Now, he has set his sights on a contest he never thought he might compete in: the Paralympics.

Before Ambrose tries for the international games for the handicapped, he was to take part in the 2000 Dixie Regional Wheelchair Games over the weekend in Warm Springs, Ga. Disabled athletes often use the meet as a warmup for the national Paralympic swimming trials in Indianapolis in June.

The 2000 Paralympic Games are in Sydney, Australia, in October.

The Paralympics, structured like the Olympics, are recognized by the International Olympic Committee and governed by the International Paralympic Committee. There are 26 Paralympic sports.

Does Ambrose, 41, think he has a chance of making it to Sydney?

"No," he said, laughing. "I'm doing this to gain confidence."

Two days each week, Ambrose removes the bike helmet and knee pads he wears to protect his body against bumps and cuts, eases out of his wheelchair and slides into the pool at the YMCA of North Pinellas in East Lake. He pulls on his snorkel and prescription goggles.

He can swim 10 to 12 laps, the equivalent of 250 to 300 yards. It takes him about 30 minutes.

With YMCA employee Doug Barnette walking in the water alongside him, dragging a float on a rope in case of an emergency, Ambrose did the freestyle up and back on a recent day. After a few laps he stopped in mid-stroke, removed the snorkel and gagged loudly.

"Every once in a while he'll catch some water," said Mike Honoshowsky, the aquatic director, who was watching from poolside.

Honoshowsky or Daniella Sanchez, assistant aquatic director, usually helps Ambrose train.

Most of the time, Ambrose is jovial, telling jokes during his training sessions and flirting with tanned girls passing by in bathing suits. They smile and bend down to give him awkward hugs.

Other times, he gets frustrated and breaks down into sobs.

"We get to see that side of him," YMCA director Roger Jacobs said.

Ambrose and other residents from Cognitive Rehabilitation and Family Support Services, a rehabilitation center in Palm Harbor where Ambrose lives, used to work out at the YMCA regularly. Ambrose would work out on the exercise machines and sometimes swim in the pool.

"One day during lunch I was looking out of the window toward the pool and thought, "That guy's an accomplished swimmer,' " Jacobs said. "I said to Mike, "That guy's a pretty good swimmer.' He said, "That's Stephen.' I was amazed."

Then, Jacobs said, Ambrose quit coming to the Y. Some time later Jacobs was sorting through his mail and found a letter from Ambrose.

"He told me he had a wish and a goal to swim in the Paralympic Games, and would we help him," Jacobs said. "I didn't want to disappoint him, so I called the CRAFSS people to see if they could get him here. We also had to create a window when Mike was available and the pool was free."

Jacobs' next move was to call Ambrose's mother in Georgia to see how she felt about his participation in the Paralympics.

"I found out she was in favor of it _ everybody was in favor of it," Jacobs said.

After another strenuous session last week, Ambrose sat in a YMCA office and said he was tired. His speech was so slurred Jacobs had to translate for him.

Why put himself through this?

"I'm so crazy," he said, laughing.

"He wears me out," said Honoshowsky. "I'm tired when he leaves."

Years of physical therapy have gotten Ambrose to the point where he can walk a few steps with assistance. And he may continue to improve.

In June Ambrose will travel to South Florida to take part in the Miami Project, an intensive therapy program designed to help him control the muscles and nerves in his body.

Cathy Buka, CRAFSS residential manager, said Ambrose is the first CRAFSS resident to ever attempt to go to the Paralympics.

"He needs this accomplishment in his life," she said. "It's something he deserves."

Toward the end of his training sessions at the YMCA, Ambrose usually stands up in the water.

Then he walks. It is the only time he can walk by himself.