“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
– Scott Hamilton, Olympic Gold Medalist
This quote is one that Mikayla Chandler reminds herself of often.
“I have a disability and I’m doing just fine. It’s all about your mindset – if you think you’ll do poorly, you probably will,” she says.
Mikayla is a freshman at Old Rochester Regional High School, a field hockey player and most recently, a shot putter on the track and field team. Last weekend she competed in the adaptive shot put event at the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) All State Indoor Track & Field Championship following her first ever track season. A program of adaptive events was added by the MIAA to this year’s Championship so that Paralympic-eligible student athletes can qualify and compete under modified rules and standards. For instance Mikayla, who has dwarfism, throws a lighter weight shot and doesn’t need to throw the shot as far to qualify for post-season competition.
Mikayla joined the track team this past Fall after a high school teammate, Josh Winsper, who also has dwarfism, opened her eyes to the opportunity. “He showed me there are so many other opportunities for me with sports,” she said. “I could never compete in states for field hockey, so being able to do so with shot put is unbelievable.”
Mikayla says Josh, her team and her coach, Bill Tilden, have shown her true acceptance and encouragement. “Being on the team has developed me as an athlete, it’s shown me that I can do what everyone else can do, just at my own pace and in my own way.”
Mikayla’s parents, Ray and Michelle Chandler, think that, while their daughter has always loved playing field hockey, shot put has brought her even more joy and determination because she is competing for personal victories. “Her first throw was I think 11 feet, and two months later she’s throwing 14 feet – that’s a huge improvement and a huge personal victory for her,” said Ray.
Mikayla and her parents are extremely grateful that Josh and Coach Tilden encouraged her to explore other athletic opportunities and to slowly shake her intimidation. Just add them to the list of people who consider Josh an inspiration, along with Coach Tilden and of course his mother, Karen Winsper, who prefers the term hero.
Coach Tilden says he doesn’t think of Josh as an adaptive event athlete, just an athlete. “He never gives up and that’s inspiring to me,” said Coach Tilden. “He isn’t just here to throw a shot put, he’s here to be one of the best, and he is – he holds school records from the entire student athlete community.”
Josh is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Mikayla – a senior with four years of track and field under his belt who also competed in last weekend’s first ever adaptive events at an MIAA All States Indoor meet. While Mikayla, Coach Tilden and the entire track team believe Josh is the role-model, Josh says he wouldn’t be that way if not for them, for the team. “They’ve just been so accepting and after a big win, I’m just happy for the team – it’s all about the team, that’s all I really care about,” he says.
Josh’s work on the field doesn’t end here though, as he hopes to someday compete in the Paralympics and throw shot put in college next year. “I won’t ever count the red, white and blue out,” he says. And we don’t think he should. Citing his most memorable moment on the field, Josh reminisced on the feeling of exhilaration he felt after throwing the National Junior Disability Championship record for discus.
Josh feels grateful for the opportunity to join and thrive in track and field, and he is hopeful that this is just the beginning for Massachusetts high school sports and athletes who have physical disabilities or vision impairments – the two general groups of athletes that compete in Paralympic sport. “It’s been a little bit lacking in Massachusetts,” Josh said. “But I think we’re helping to pave the way for future high school athletes with disabilities who want to compete.”
Josh, Mikayla, their parents, Coach Tilden and Adaptive Sports New England’s President, Joe Walsh, want to send the message to every New England student with a physical disability or visual impairment that the opportunities are out there and waiting for you, all you have to do is put in the work. There are no limits. And to high school coaches across the region, Coach Tilden advises, “Whatever their disability may be, don’t hesitate to put them on your team. They can put in as much work as any athlete already on your team, sometimes more.”