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CNN Hero: Sports empower paraplegics

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Web Extra: CNN Hero Richard St. Denis
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
RELATED TOPICS
  • Disabilities
  • Mexico

(CNN) -- Richard St. Denis is the founder of World Access Project, a nonprofit that provides custom-fit wheelchairs and other mobility aids to people living with disabilities in rural Mexico.

In addition to distributing the equipment and showing the recipients how to use it, St. Denis and his group offer sports clinics and events to keep people active.

St. Denis, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, credits sports with improving his life after he suffered a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was once a world-ranked athlete in wheelchair skiing.

CNN's Ebonne Ruffins recently spoke with St. Denis about how he and his group are helping people with disabilities benefit from athletics.

Ebonne Ruffins: Why did you start including athletics in your group's efforts?

Richard St. Denis: The first year, I came down to Mexico and gave a bunch of wheelchairs away, but not everybody used them. Some just sat in their wheelchairs, and they didn't know what to do with them. So I would teach them how to push them.

But I realized they needed a lot more then just learning how to push their wheelchairs. So we started teaching them how to do wheelies, how to get around in grass, rough terrain. And then I started teaching them how to play sports: basketball and tennis, mainly.

We wanted for them to be more active, to think of the wheelchair as not just something to sit in but something that would make their life better.

Ruffins: How does the sports element of your program work?

St. Denis: We meet every Saturday morning to play tennis, and we have camps during the summer where able-bodied people and people with disabilities from the U.S. and Mexico participate in a number of sports tournaments. That's always a lot of fun. They meet new friends, and they compete against each other.

Outside of the camp setting, some of the players will also compete nationally. One of my students, Tito, is hoping to represent Mexico in the Pan American Games in tennis. Maybe we'll even have some students in the Paralympics one day. Some of them are just really very good.

But overall, for all the wheelchair recipients who become active in sports, I think it develops their self-esteem. When people compete in sports, they feel good about themselves. They think, "If I can play sports, then maybe I can get a job, maybe I can get up out of the house, maybe I can become active."

Ruffins: How did you start competing in sports after your injury?

St. Denis: My injury was in 1976, and in 1978, I started playing sports. I started with basketball; everybody (in a wheelchair) always starts with that. And then I got into some field sports: shot put, discus, javelin, road racing and track races like the 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash.

About a year later, I decided to take up weightlifting. ... Because my legs don't weigh anything, I would win my division -- and I was competing against able-bodied people! I weighed 145 pounds, and I bench-pressed 335 pounds.

I've also competed in the Veterans Games for disabled veterans and participated in four marathons. I think my best time ever for a marathon was 2:01:30.

Ruffins: You have done it all. Do you have a favorite sport?

St. Denis: Snow skiing is my favorite sport, and tennis is second. What I love about snow skiing is just the independence. You can go as fast or as slow as you want without anyone holding you back. It's complete liberty.

I broke my back snow skiing, and in 1990, I ranked third in the world in the downhill skiing event (for the disabled).

Read the full story on CNN Hero Richard St. Denis:
Free wheelchairs give new life to rural Mexicans