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Athletes with disabilities converge on Edmond to compete in games

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Retired Oklahoma City firefighter T.J. Pemberton has history on his mind. In 2002, an ATV accident left him with right side paralysis of his leg at the hip and threatened to end his budding career in competitive archery. With the aid of a specially designed leg brace, Pemberton began picking up his bow within a year of his accident.

"I actually had to relearn how to shoot because when you stand up normally, you are almost straight up and down," Pemberton said. "With the way the brace is designed, I have to lean to one side or another to get my balance. It took me another year or two to be able to shoot at a level where I could be competitive again."

He has since competed with the U.S. Paralympics team in Beijing in 2008 and moved to the University of Central Oklahoma to train at the UCO Wellness Center, an official U.S. Paralympic Training Site. He will be competing in this weekend's Endeavor Games, which draws out world-class athletes with physical disabilities. This is one more step to his ultimate goal: being the first disabled competitor to qualify for the Olympics.

"In archery, we are one of the few cases where disabled competitors and able-bodied competitors don't differ a whole lot," Pemberton said. "We will actually have able-bodied archers shooting with us, but instead of me walking to the target and pull my own arrows, they will have someone that pulls and scores my arrows for me."

Pemberton is already a highly ranked archer, and his only limitation right now is he normally shoots with a compound bow, as opposed to the recurve bow that Olympians must use. He is currently shooting with both, in anticipation of competing in Olympic qualifying events in 2011.

FIERCE COMPETITIVE DRIVE
That fierce competitive drive is common among Paralympians, according to Katrina Shaklee, UCO's sports performance director. Shaklee has helped organize the Endeavor Games since their inception in 2000.

"We had someone injured on a motorcycle in the fall of 2007, and he was in the Paralympics Games in track the next year," she said. "If the athlete has the desire, it can be pretty quick, but it depends on their background and how much experience (in sports) they had before."

Shaklee said that the Paralympics were started in 1948 as a way to give British disabled World War II veterans a venue to compete in sports as a tool to encourage rehabilitation. With the influx of disabled military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Endeavor Games have seen a boost in competitors.

"Most of the military folks are young and were very involved in athletics before their injuries, they played sports in high school and want to continue on," she said. "In the Endeavor Games, we usually have 20 to 25 injured servicemen, and this year, we expect to have 45. They played a part in the '08 Paralympics Games in Beijing, and they are expected to play a really large part in 2012."

Advancements in prosthetics and rehabilitation techniques are closing the gap between able-bodied and disabled competitors, and Shaklee said UCO is seeking to draw more mainstream interest to the games as a spectator sport.

"Usually, the crowd is just family and friends, but we are talking about how to get other people to come out," she said. "We will have volunteers who come back year after year because they like to be around the atmosphere. We just need to get people to understand that this is not like the Special Olympics. This is for physically disabled world-class athletes, and it is very competitive and fun to watch."

UCO Endeavor Games take placed Thursday through Sunday at Hamilton Field House at the University Of Central Oklahoma, 100 N. University Drive in Edmond. "Charles Martin

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