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The price of competition

Last year Joey Chiavaroli traveled to Connecticut for shot put and discus throws and wheelchair races.

He placed second and third in most of the events, then did a repeat performance at the Orange Bowl Junior Olympic games in Miami.

He returned with an armload of first-place trophies.

"Some of my friends can walk," said 8-year-old Joey, who has spina bifida. "But I don't wish that was me. I like me just the way I am."

Affecting about one in every 1,000 newborns in the United States, spina bifida causes paralysis when the fetus' spine fails to close correctly.

More children are born with the condition than with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis combined.

Although a very few afflicted with the disease do achieve normal mobility (such as rock star John Mellencamp), many require crutches, braces, wheelchairs and extensive physical therapy to maximize their mobility.

"We had Joey in therapy when he was around three or four, but he was giving us a real hard time with it," said his dad, Randy Chiavaroli of Hudson. "He just fought it and fought it, and that's when I got him into wheelchair racing. Now he gets his therapy and exercise through sports."

Joey's parents are divorced, and so he splits his time between their homes in Rotunda and Hudson. When he's not with them, he's at his grandparents' repair shop, Harry's Fix-it in Odessa, or training for competition at the Blaze Sports Club Tampa Bay, a free program for disabled children based in East Tampa.

Affiliated with the National Parks Department and the Hillsborough County Department of Parks and Recreation, Blaze offers programs in wheelchair racing, swimming and track and field. Joey practices twice a week in two-hour sessions.

"It makes my muscles bigger," he said proudly, pointing to his bicep. "See right there, where it sticks out? That comes from racing."

Socially, the racing has done him good, too.

"The other kids on the team are fun," he said. "They're in wheelchairs like me, too."

It's also a good mental workout.

"It's all about attitude and determination, and this builds his self esteem and self confidence," said Andy Chasnoff, 50, Joey's coach at Blaze. "We focus on his ability, not his disability."

Seeing the clear benefits, Joey's family tries to provide opportunities for him to compete.

"Let's face it, the therapy didn't build his self esteem, and it didn't help him make friends," Randy Chiavaroli said. "This is so much better for him, so somehow we have to make it work."

But it's costly.

"If we can get him into seven races this year, we're looking at about $15,000," said his grandfather, Harry Gurr. "He needs a new racing wheelchair almost every year, and the chair alone is almost $3,000."

A large portion of that budget is for travel expenses. There's no avoiding it, said Randy Chiavaroli, who owns an automotive machine shop. Joey needs to travel in order to be able to compete against children in his own age group.

The National Disability Sports Alliance and Wheelchair Sports USA co-sponsors these competitions and seeks to assist families who have trouble affording them. Future competitions could take Joey to Canada, New Jersey, Illinois and Arizona.

Wheelchair Sports USA also accepts and escrows funds for athletes, including Joey, and administers the payouts when they compete. Individuals or companies can donate to their accounts.

"Football, soccer, baseball, you can always find someone to help with the finances," Randy Chiavaroli said.

"But there's no money at the end of the line. Joey could be the top wheelchair racer in the world, but very few companies are going to race out to sponsor him."

Reporter Sheryl Kay can be reached at skreporterhotmail.com.

Blaze Sports

Find out more about Blaze Sports at (813) 744-5307. For information about the Joey Chiavaroli Athletes Fund, contact Wheelchair Sports USA, (719) 574-1150, or www.wsusa.org.

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