Jamin Rader is five minutes removed from finishing what he described as a difficult 1,600 meters in the wheelchair division at the 4A West Central District track and field championships.
Pre-race wheel issues made the Timberline High School senior’s race more challenging at Kent-Meridian High’s French Field.
Scrub work by assistant coach Kevin Gary, a can of WD-40 and pine tar-like spray offered by an opposing coach got Rader’s wheelchair in the best possible condition.
Forgive Rader — he became paralyzed from the waist down only seven months ago and his experience in an adaptive racing wheelchair is still novice.
Star Track XXXIII is Thursday through Saturday at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma Stadium, and the first race of the meet is the combined 4A/3A/2A wheelchair 1,600 meters at 3:20 p.m. Thursday.
Rader is honest with himself and knows a state title isn’t in the cards because of his self-proclaimed “newbie” status.
And that’s OK with Rader. He’s not here for victories. He’s here for memories.
When other teenagers’ self-pity might drown them in their darkest hour, Rader doesn’t have a problem living on wheels.
Nor competing on them.
So much so that within 24 hours of an eventual 38-day hospital stay, Rader, who will attend the University of Washington, made contact with Timberline track coaches about competing this track season in a wheelchair.
He dreamed of competing at state. And for the first — and final — time in his high school career, he will.
“I just needed wheels,” said a beaming Rader.
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It’s amazing how much life can change in seven months.
Last fall during cross country season, Rader was usually the Blazers’ No. 1 or No. 2 runner. He ran the 5,000 meters at the Bill Kehoe Invitational on Oct. 22 in a season-best time of 17 minutes, 40 seconds.
Yet 2 1/2 weeks later, he cried for his parents, Curt and Heather. His legs cramped up. He couldn’t stand. Paramedics rushed him to Olympia’s Providence St. Peter Hospital on Nov. 9, and later was transferred to the University of Washington Medical Center. Doctors were initially puzzled, but the eventual diagnosis was transverse myelitis, an inflammatory disease which attacks the spinal cord.
Doctors said he’d likely never walk again. Does Rader believe it?
“I’m kind of a realist,” he said.
No longer able-bodied, that didn’t mean competing had to end. Rader like challenges. He emailed Timberline cross country coach Linda Huyck, track and field coach Todd Taylorand Gary about how to still compete in track, but in a wheelchair.
Taylor couldn’t believe what he was reading.
“I was floored,” he said.
In 2011, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association enabled adaptive athletes to contribute to able-bodied team scoring at track meets, including state meets in all six classifications.
Those athletes now compete in nine events at state: 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,600-, 3,200-meter runs, shot put, discus, and javelin.
Wheelchair athletes also must meet minimum state-qualifying standards; Rader specializes in middle- and long-distance races. In addition to the combined (open to both genders) 1,600, he’ll also compete in the combined 800 (11:45 a.m. Friday) and combined 3,200 (11:45 a.m. Saturday). Rader is the lone entrant in Saturday’s combined 3,200.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss — and still catch glimpses of it when he can — the races he used to run, cheering on runners down the stretch. His former personal bests are 4:54.40 (1,600) and 3,200 (10:38.85). In his racing wheelchair, he cut his 1,600 time nearly in half from 12 minutes to 6:50.90.
He speaks of the struggles of being an adaptive athlete — “it’s a lot more freeing to run than race in a wheelchair,” he said — but the drive to compete lives on.
“This is my sport — I love this,” Rader said. “Running brings me the most freedom, so why wouldn’t I want to keep competing?
“I’ve always kept going.”
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A team effort goes into assisting Rader on meet days.
It can take up to 15 minutes pre-race for Rader to get ready. Rader tapes his thumbs to prevent blisters, and transfers himself from his regular four-wheel wheelchair to his three-wheel blue racing wheelchair he describes as “something from the 1970s.”
Tires have been blown, but overall, it’s been good to Rader. The chair is on rental from a Seattle shop through December.
“I’ll do 5Ks this summer,” he said. “I’m going to use it hard.”
Gary, also a Timberline cross country assistant coach, praises Rader’s ambition and drive to succeed, and it goes beyond sports.
He’s a 4.0 student, maintaining the grade-point average even while missing five weeks of school because of his hospitalization that extended into mid-December. He’s also assistant editor of the school’s award-winning newsmagazine, The Blazer; his girlfriend, Morgan Lockhart, is the editor. The couple were also crowned Timberline’s prom king and queen.
“Whatever challenge he has, he’s always looking to improve,” Gary said. “He’s motivated to do the best he can.
“His attitude, his spirit, is just amazing.”
His inspiration trickles down to his track and field teammates, too. Junior thrower Jeremy Wetherald calls Rader, a team captain, the “heart and backbone” of the team.
Junior long and triple jumper Akshaya Sivakumar said she’s learnded life lessons from Rader on how to remain positive and motivated through any hardship.
“We can all learn something from him,” she said. “If he can do it, anyone can.”