WESTFIELD, NJ – Nine year-old Sarah Maher is a busy girl. She takes piano lessons, participates in Brownies, swims, plays baseball in the Buddy Ball league and, on Thursday nights, takes to the field at Kehler Stadium in Westfield to practice track and field events with Lightning Wheels, a paralympic sports club sponsored by Children’s Specialized Hospital.
“I like making new friends and having fun with them, and connecting as a team,” said the Franklin Elementary School third grader of Lightning Wheels.
Maher, who has spina bifida, is one of about 30 athletes between the ages of five and 22 in the club, which accepts children and young adults who have a primary diagnosis of a physical disability.
At Thursday’s practice, Maher and her mother Karen said she is trying to qualify in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m wheelchair race events so she can attend the National Junior Disability Championships to be held this July in Iowa.
She has already qualified for NJDC in several swimming events and is eager to take the bus with her teammates to the competition.
“Swimming is my favorite sport,” said Maher, who swims during the winter with Lightning Wheels at an indoor facility in Cranford.
Among the club’s goals are increasing independence and self-esteem of an athlete with a disability, improving an individual’s physical skills through instruction and varied activities and developing a peer group for the athlete and her family.
Head coach Trisha Yurochko expects the athletes to attend practice regularly and to qualify for national competition in six events.
“It’s opened up new worlds for them,” she said.
Stephen Koziel, a 17 year-old high school junior from Kearny who has spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, was focused and fast on Thursday as he zipped around the track, arms pumping, in his chair.
“My main goal is to go to the Rio Paralympics in 2016,” he said after his workout.
To do this, Koziel knows he needs to improve his times, expose himself to national coaches and get his name recognized on a wider stage.
Koziel, who also swims with Lightning Wheels and does shot put, javelin and discus, is dedicating his Eagle Scout project to raising awareness of Paralympic sports. He says the club has taught him that “if you put your mind to something, nobody can stop you from doing what you want to do.”
For nine year-old Kiko Mina of Lake Hopatcong, the best part of practice is running around the track. He loves being outside and seeing his friends.
"I like running. I practice a lot," said Mina, who had multiple brain surgeries as a baby to cure a seizure disorder.
His dad, Joseph, sees many benefits to Lightning Wheels.
"Aside from the social aspect of it, it gets him to burn all the energy he has," he said.
On Saturday, April 26, Lisa Natale, owner of Michele’s on Prospect, will hold a fundraiser to benefit Lightning Wheels.
With the help of a group of Maher's older sister’s classmates, Natale has organized a parents-versus-kids basketball game at 11 am at Franklin. Participants are invited to have breakfast on the house at Michele’s beginning at 10 a.m., and then are invited back for a free lunch after the game. Several Lightning Wheels members will be at the deli-cafe, near the school at 760 Prospect Street in Westfield, and donations are welcome.