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Gillette man works to bring wheelchair sports to community

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Joe Zabel, from right, his daughter Addison and Justin West play a game of basketball in specialized wheelchairs at the Campbell County Recreation Center on April 19 in Gillette. Zabel has been working with the Campbell County Recreation Foundation to raise money for these wheelchairs. Photo by Ed Glazar, Gillette News Record.
Jonathan Gallardo with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Justin West stopped bull riding in 2010. He’d recently had a bad fall, and doctors told him that if he had one more accident he would likely be paralyzed.

A few years later, he was in the Big Horn Mountains for his brother’s birthday. They were riding snowmobiles when they came up on what they thought was a 5-foot drop. It turned out to be a 40-foot drop.

“I closed my eyes, and all I thought about was, I’m dead,” he said.

Miraculously, West survived the fall. But he knew instantly that he’d broken his back going over the handlebars, and that his life would change forever.

Nine years later, there will still be times when West forgets that he’s paralyzed from the waist down.

“I’ll have the urge to jump out of (the wheelchair), and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t do that,’’’ he said. “I don’t think you fully get used to it.”

But that doesn’t mean that urge can’t still lead to something.

For the last 18 months, Gillette resident Joe Zabel has been working to bring wheelchair basketball to Gillette to give people with disabilities such as himself and West a way to stay active and enjoy each other’s company.

In mid-April, West, Zabel and Ann Kalbach were at the gym in the Campbell County Recreation Center, playing wheelchair basketball.

Kalbach lamented how short her arms were, saying she felt “like a T-rex.” Zabel was trying to teach her and West the basics. While they got the passing down, they were trying to figure out how to dribble and roll at the same time.

The Campbell County Recreation Foundation was created to grow the Festival of Lights at Cam-plex Park. As a foundation, it can accept private donations and spend them in ways that the Rec Center, as a government entity, can’t.

Zabel got appointed to the foundation board, and he didn’t waste any time bringing up adaptive sports — recreational opportunities for people with disabilities — as a potential project.

Before his injury, Zabel played rec league basketball and volleyball. While there have been ways for him to get outside and be active, there were no options as far as team sports go.

Each wheelchair, which is specifically designed for basketball and other sports, costs $1,350. The foundation has purchased six chairs so far, and a seventh chair was donated.

The goal is to have enough wheelchairs to start a league. Right now, the biggest issue is storage space. But Zabel pointed out that no one has ever run a league for wheelchair sports, so if that ever gets started, it’ll be breaking new ground.

The whole idea of wheelchair basketball at this level, Zabel said, is “none of us are good at wheelchair basketball.” But it evens the playing field so that everyone is equally bad, regardless of their abilities.

He’ll occasionally ask kids who are shooting around if they want to hop in a chair and play. They’re usually hesitant and reply with the excuse that they’re not good at wheelchair basketball.

“Nobody’s good at it,” Zabel said. “We just need you to sit in the chair and play. You’re just going to be as terrible as I am, let’s just play.”

Similar to West, Zabel and Kalbach both were paralyzed while doing an outdoor activity. Kalbach was training a colt when she was thrown from her horse.

“I was just putting 60 days on someone’s horse, and it didn’t end well,” she said.

And Zabel fell 40 feet while on a climbing trip in Moab, Utah, in 2018. He lost his footing while hiking, hitting the side of a cliff several times and landing on a large rock below. On top of getting a spinal cord injury, Zabel also had a traumatic brain injury from the incident.

“I don’t remember most of 2018,” he said. “I don’t remember the accident, I don’t remember planning the trip … I don’t remember the first two hospitals I was in.”

All three of them went to Craig Hospital, a neuro-rehabilitation and research hospital in Englewood, Colorado. This hospital and the city of Boise, Idaho, are the only entities in the region Zabel knows of that offer wheelchair sports.

Just doing something can make all the difference.

“Even if it means you just sit on your deck, it’s better than being cooped up in the house,” West said.

For those who were very active before a spinal cord injury, going from that to doing nothing can be devastating. There’s a lot more to get used to than just not being able to walk.

Kalbach is the marketing director for Say We Won’t Gives, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities participate in outdoor activities. She said it’s very easy to get caught in the trap of staying home, wheelchair or not.

“Then if you’re in a chair, everything’s harder to do,” she said. “It makes it easier to just do nothing.”

When she was in the hospital recovering from her injury, she got “super depressed because I wasn’t doing anything.”

Her brother brought her saddle to the hospital, and it was strapped to a rolling cart, and she did her therapy from that apparatus. Just being able to do something active with other people can go a long way for one’s mental health, Kalbach said.

So even though Kalbach didn’t play much basketball before her injury, she’s excited to learn more about it now.

“It’s nice to have access to an activity that gets us out, because it’s a struggle to do,” she said.

“You’ve got to be moving constantly,” West said. “If you don’t, you’ll find yourself falling into a deep depression.”

Wheelchair basketball is just the start, Zabel said. He hopes to someday introduce floor hockey, pickle ball and soccer as adaptive sports in Gillette.

“How are we going to play soccer?” West asked. “Electronic feet?”

“No, you’re just going to ram the ball,” Zabel said.

Kalbach admits that her disability can catch her by surprise sometimes.

“You think you get used to it, then something happens and you’re like, well damn,” she said. “Like you see your kids running or doing monkey bars and your spouse is up there holding them because you can’t. It’s little things like that.”

But even so, they realize their lives didn’t end with their paralysis, they just took a different turn that they weren’t expecting.

“The chair doesn’t stop you, the chair doesn’t take your life away,” West said. “My grandma said it the best, the chair is just an extension of your body.”

This story was published on April 27, 2024.

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