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Ontario Grade 3 student races cross-country in a wheelchair

Charlie Damianov participated in a regional cross-country meet with great success; his mom is calling on The Blue Mountains to level the field by adding paved trails

A single-file line of Grade 2 and 3 boys wearing red, green, yellow, and blue pinnies over their hooded sweaters formed on the soft grass field where the finish line marker was. Among them, Charlie Damianov, a sandy-blonde-haired child with red-framed spectacles that matched the frame of his wheelchair smiled and high-fived his mom and his peers. He had just finished a one-kilometre race, his first cross-country event, and the one he’d been training for every Tuesday and Thursday. 

A dark-haired boy in a red and black jersey jogged up to Charlie and silently offered his hand in a high five, then turned and ran back the way he came. 

At Charlie’s side are two Grade 7 girls who offered to join him on the race and push him over the hills. They told him he passed “at least 20 people.” He relayed the accomplishment to his mom, then he made his way to the Beaver Valley Community School tent to eat his slices of pepperoni pizza with his classmates. 

“He’s super excited,” said mom Brittany Knight. “The chance to participate in group sports has been really exciting for him.” 

Charlie is in Grade 3. He plays basketball, goes swimming, and rides horses. 

A condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) has affected all of the muscles and joints from his hips down to his toes, so he cannot bear weight on his feet. 

According to his mom, he relies heavily on upper body strength. He uses a wheelchair and other equipment to adapt and allow him increased mobility and a chance to pursue his enjoyment of sports.

Immediately after Charlie’s teacher Michael Kulakowsky announced the start of cross-country running team practices, Charlie declared his intention to join. His teacher said, “you got it.”

“He’s so motivated, and so independent,” said Kulakowsky. “He tells me ‘this is what I want’ and he’s super easy to work with.”

At the twice-a-week practices, Charlie wheeled around the school’s crushed limestone track, training with the rest of the team. 

He was the only child of between 800 and 1,000 at the regional cross-country event for the Bluewater District School Board held at Tomahawk Recreation Complex Thornbury in a wheelchair. 

“I’m thrilled that he is here, it speaks to his mental fortitude,” said Kulakowski. 

Charlie’s mom sings the praises of his teachers and the cross-country coaches who have made the team accessible for her son. 

“To be part of the event and to be encouraged and supported by his teachers and peers, there’s a great social and emotional benefit,” said Knight. 

The support has also made her question why certain barriers still exist for Charlie and others with mobility issues. 

“We’ve all had to problem-solve, which is what we tend to do a lot,” said Knight. 

Charlie’s older brother Elliott will help her carrier Charlie’s chair up stairs, and he is a strong support to his brother on the playground. 

“He makes the world accessible for Charlie,” said Knight. 

As residents of The Blue Mountains, however, Knight said she’s often leaving town to Collingwood or Owen Sound to find a paved trail or beach with accessible mats to accommodate Charlie’s wheelchair. At Tomahawk where the cross-country race took place, Charlie had to navigate soft grassy fields and a gravel parking lot. The terrain is the reason Charlie had two helpers to push him through the race. He had strength and stamina from his training. 

“Everyone else is working so hard, can we have fewer barriers?” said Knight. 

She’s been advocating for accessible trails in The Blue Mountains by writing letters to council and speaking with recreation staff. 

She was excited to hear about a Thornbury-Clarksburg Rotary Club proposal for a redeveloped Moreau Park with a year-round walking path and accessible playground. 

The most accessible trail would be paved, according to Knight. A crushed limestone trail, like the Georgian Trail is better than gravel or a grass field. 

“It would be nice if the Georgian Trail was paved,” she said. 

She is calling attention to accessibility during the election campaign and hoping it will stick for the next term of council. After all, she said, neighbouring municipalities have paved trails, why not The Blue mountains too?