AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Her legs and feet strapped down to keep her firmly seated in a specialized chair, Lauren Pingel placed the 6-pound iron ball against her right cheek, gave a slight pivot and let it fly.
And with that, Pingel became the first wheelchair athlete to compete at the Texas state high school track and field championships.
“It was nerve-wracking. My hands are still shaking,” Pingel said after her fourth-place finish.
And it was exhilarating.
The 16-old freshman at Pampa High School, about 60 miles northeast of Amarillo, was disabled in a car crash when she was 3 years old. On Saturday, she launched a new era for Texas high school sports and opportunity for students who until now had to watch everyone else play the games they wanted to.
“I finally got to do something,” said Pingel, who was a manager for the high school basketball team and pursued track as soon as she learned she was eligible to compete.
“I’m not a manager any more. I’m a player!” she said. “I don’t have to be on the sideline anymore.”
The University Interscholastic League voted in October 2013 to add a wheelchair division to the state meet and held three events for the boys and girls: the shot put and the 100 and 400 meters. The top three finishers earned medals and declared state champions. They did not earn points for the overall team championships.
The wheelchair division drew 12 athletes statewide who met the qualifying standards set by the UIL. Charles Breithaupt, director of the UIL, said he expects participation to grow as more disabled students and their families learn that track is open to them.
Abby Dunkin of Comal Canyon was the first wheelchair state champion, winning the shot put with a distance of 18-feet, 4 inches. Runner-up was Kortney Boldt of Cibolo Steele and Brandi Smith of Garland Rowlett finished third.
Dunkin and Boldt had specialty license plates on their wheelchairs. Dunkin’s read “The Wheel Deal” and Boldt’s said “2 Fast 4U.”
“It was awesome,” said Dunkin, who later won the girls’ wheelchair 100 and 400 meters Saturday night.
“We’re a big family,” she said. “Being able to compete with them was special. We’re just laying the foundation for something bigger.”
In the 100, Dunkin lowered her head and powered down the track at the University of Texas, pumping her arms to push her specialized chair out to a big lead over the field of three other racers. She finished in 19.88 seconds as most of the crowd of more than 15,000 stood and cheered the racers across the finish line.
“I had to stop myself from tearing up. It was emotional,” Dunkin said of the ovation. “This is my last high school event and I would never imagine ending it like this.”
Dunkin had been an able-bodied athlete until a degenerative nerve condition caused so much pain in her legs that she could no longer walk. She and the other racers took a victory lap after their events.
“We wanted to share the moment together,” Dunkin said.
After graduation this spring, she will go to the University of Texas at Arlington where she will play for the wheelchair basketball program.
Dustin Strelsky of Rockdale won the boys’ 100 and 400. Keyber Majano of Cleburne won the boys’ shot put and took third in the 100.
Majano, who was born with spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair since he was a toddler, had played basketball but had never tried track and field until a few months ago.
“All this opens up other doors for people,” Majano said. “I hope we did that tonight.”
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