- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - For Abby Dunkin, the pain in her legs is constant. The question is whether it will be manageable for a day or render her unable to get out of bed.

Simple things others hardly notice - a strong breeze, a hot bath or lying under sheets - can leave the 18-year-old high school senior in searing agony, the results of a rare nervous system disorder that put a girl who loved all sports, from basketball to volleyball to martial arts, in a wheelchair.

“It feels like needles on fire being hit by a sledgehammer,” Dunkin said in a matter-of-fact description of what she endures daily.

Yet on Saturday, Dunkin will be in Austin competing for Comal Canyon in the first sanctioned wheelchair events at the Texas state high school track meet. She is a favorite to win the girls’ 400 meters and shot put and is the second-fastest qualifier in the 100. The state meet starts Friday.

“Being one of the first wheelchair athletes in Texas as the high school level is awesome,” Dunkin said. “To be competing for a state championship is a blessing. It’s just not the way I thought it would happen.”

And activists call the first-year wheelchair events a bold step toward inclusion for Texas’ disabled students.

Another disabled athlete, legally blind pole vaulter Charlotte Brown, a junior at Emory Rains High School, will be at the state meet for the second time competing against able-bodied vaulters. Brown qualified for the meet last year but didn’t medal, and she returns this year tied for the second-highest qualifying mark in Class 3A at 11 feet, 3 inches.

Dunkin was - and is - an avid basketball player. When her nerve disorder robbed her of her able-bodied basketball career, she switched to wheelchair hoops and plays for a team affiliated with the San Antonio Spurs. She also plans to play in college for the University of Texas at Arlington.

But a Texas state high school title wasn’t out there for Dunkin or other kids in wheelchairs until the University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing body for high school sports, voted in October 2013 to add a wheelchair division in track and field with events in the 100 and 400 meters and the shot put.

The UIL will award medals to the top three finishers in each event, but they will not count toward team championships. To get to Austin, each wheelchair athlete had to meet a qualifying standard set by the UIL. Twelve athletes will compete overall.

Organizers say Texas is the 10th state with officially sanctioned wheelchair events at a state meet. The move opens the doors to real competition and inclusion for kids who would otherwise be left on the sideline, said Wendy Gumbert, director of South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sports.

The message for disabled athletes is that “life can be normal,” Gumbert said. “We are changing lives. Some of these kids may become Paralympians and travel the world.” Gumbert’s organization has provided disabled athletes with $2,500 competition wheelchairs and trained coaches on how to work with them.

“I was on speed dial with a couple of coaches. ‘Wait, I’ve for a flat tire, now what do I do?’” Gumbert said.

Her most consistent piece of advice was to treat wheelchair athletes like the others: Put them in their lane, send them on their way and encourage them to do their best.

“It’s one more kid being added to your track team,” Gumbert said.

One mother of wheelchair racer wept when she saw her son, who has cerebral palsy, compete finish a race with the entire meet cheering him on, Gumbert said

“The team lined the track. He had never felt like he belonged to anything at the school,” Gumbert said.

Melissa Dunkin, Abby’s mother, said her daughter needs the competition of sports to take her mind off her daily pain and the frustration of moving her life into a wheelchair.

“She is happiest when she is competing,” Melissa Dunkin said. “Every day we found for her mentally, that staying active in sports is the best thing.”

Abby Dunkin said she never considered the frustration of a wheelchair athlete until she found herself in one. Now she wants to chase a title just like anyone else.

“We can accomplish the same goal,” she said. “We just do it different.”

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