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Wichita Native Becomes Adaptive Bobsledding Hopeful

Abigail Wilson


A Wichita native is hoping to make history and pave the way for other disabled athletes by driving an adaptive bobsled in the 2018 Winter Paralympics. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…

He was the quarterback in high school. He played in the outfield on the school's baseball team. He was a lifelong athlete with a complete love for the game. It was an April morning in 2008, during Lance Roop’s junior year at Campus High School.

“I was on my way to school. I was driving. I remember the last thing in my head thinking, ‘Why ain't I listening to the radio? I just got my radio fixed.’ So I remember seeing 96.3 actually, and I looked up and I thought I saw something running out of the ditch just like really quick. It was in a big grain elevator ditch out there at 55th and Tyler. It ended up being a dog actually, and it just startled me--looking up from the radio, just looking up real quick--and I grabbed the wheel, went spinning and ended up paralyzed.”

Roop’s accident happened six and half years ago. He is paralyzed from the chest down. Now, at 23, he is a sophomore at the University of Central Oklahoma where he plays wheelchair basketball and is on the wheelchair track team. But he says those sports aren’t competitive enough for him, so he got online and found a form for people interested in becoming Paralympians. The form listed all of the sports that are Paralympic qualified like wheelchair curling and alpine skiing.

"I just checked every single one and ended up getting a call about bobsledding," he says.

The phone call Roop got was from Dave Nicholls, director of the United States Adaptive Bobsled and Skeleton Association or USABSA. He asked Lance to come try it out. Nicholls is also a paraplegic and a pioneer in the sport of bobsledding for the disabled.

"Approximately ten years ago, I was invited up to the Olympic Park as one of four disabled athletes to be guinea pigs, if you will, and participate in driving the first adaptive sled that ever existed."

So what exactly is an adaptive bobsled? It looks just like the traditional two-man bobsled but with a roll cage on the top, like you would see on a go-kart. It also has a four-part harness that holds the driver in the sled.

“When you’re hitting 4 or 5 G's at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour and the sled is up on its side, if you don’t have the physical strength or ability, which some of these guys don’t have, so they need the four-part harness system to hold them secure in their seat.”

Nicholls says the USABSA is the main force in the United States in promoting, recruiting, and fundraising for adaptive bobsled. And while there are huge strides being made in the sport, they have yet to reach all of the qualifications set by the International Paralympic Committee that would make adaptive bobsled an official Paralympic sport. Nicholls says he thinks adaptive bobsled could be a full medal sport in the Paralympic games in the near future.

“We’re well on our way. The word on the street is that at the very least we’ll be an exhibition sport the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

And that’s good news for rookie bobsledder Lance Roop, who has his sights set on competing in 2018. We met at his house for an interview while he was home for Thanksgiving break. When I asked him how to find his house, he told me I couldn't miss it. He said there was a big wheelchair ramp in the yard. We sat at the kitchen table by the Christmas tree. He proudly wore his USABSA t-shirt.

“It’s pretty fun. I like it a lot, I guess," says Roop. "I’ve only done it five times, and I’ve crashed two of the five times but I still made the team, so that’s all that matters."

As a member of the bobsled association, Roop has the opportunity to attend driving schools where he will learn the skills needed to successfully pilot a bobsled, all of which he will have to pay for himself. His first sled driving school was last month in Calgary, Canada, where they practice on the track used in the 1988 Olympics. Part of Roop’s role as the driver of the sled is transferring himself from his wheelchair into the bobsled.

“You have one minute to get yourself fully into the bobsled and then the guy can push. Whether you get in it before a minute or not, it doesn't matter.

To get into the sled, he says he has to use his upper body strength to lift himself out of his wheelchair and onto the roll cage. From there he scoots his body forward and down into the sled. He takes off his tennis shoes to make it easier to get his legs inside and wedges the shoes by his thighs.

"Don’t your feet get cold?" I ask him.

"You’d think they would, but that’s the good thing about not be able to feel them I guess," he says.

Roop straps himself in and takes the controls. Another person pushes off and acts as brakeman in the back. Roop's brakeman in Canada was a single-leg amputee from Boise, Idaho.

Lance Roop and Dorian Wiles, his brakeman during the driving school in Calgary, Canada. Wiles is from Boise, Idaho.

“The first time it was really nuts. I'd never seen a bobsled the only thing I'd seen is 'Cool Runnings' and I didn't even have a lucky egg on me," he says. "But I made it to the bottom, and I made it down there pretty fast and we were shiny side down, which is our heads up and not on the side.”

“In the bobsled going down, it’s unexplainable really. You’re really not thinking about anything besides getting down there, getting to the bottom. The whole thought of the fact that I’m paralyzed and the fact that the guy behind me is an amputee, missing a leg or whatever, is just totally out of my mind. It’s all about getting down there safe. You’re going so fast.”

But sometimes getting down the track safely is a problem.

“When we crashed, they actually forgot to pin my roll cage, so I came out a little bit and ended up blackening up my eye a little bit, but it wasn’t too bad," Roop explains. "You just hold on and ride it out and pretty soon you’re at the bottom and someone with big old eyes is asking you if you’re okay and you say 'Ya' and you get out and you go back down again.”

Roop says he plans on making bobsledding and wheelchair athletics a permanent part of his future. But in the time between now and his shot at the 2018 Winter Paralympics, the former high school football standout is getting back something he hasn’t had since that April morning when he saw the dog out of the corner of his eye.

“People always talk about what do you miss most about it just playing the game. It's not even that. It's like the bus rides, the guys, hanging out...stuff like that," he says. "That's the stuff that I'm getting the most back now because like I said, bobsledding was awesome, but not everything’s all about bobsledding. We're there to bobsled, but we're there to support each other as well.”

Credit courtesy photo
Lance Roop, second row, far right holding up a number 1, and the rest United States Adaptive Bobsled and Skeleton Association.