Joining the race: New high school league rule mainstreams track and field athletes with disabilities

Mark Braun speeds alone around the 400-meter track in his three-wheeled racing chair, but the race is only against the clock, as fans and competitors from other schools are on the side, clapping for the Irondale junior.

The scene is the 1,600-meter race Thursday at the Greenslit Relays at Irondale, in New Brighton, and 45 minutes later he competes alone again in the 800 meters.

Braun is one of six wheelchair athletes participating in varsity track and field this year, thanks to a new rule instituted by the Minnesota State High School League that will include the state meet June 10-11 at Hamline University. The athletes will have to achieve designated times in the 800 and 1,600 meters, or a certain distance in the shot put.

“Right now, it’s all about trying to improve my time,” Braun said. “It’s difficult sometimes not having somebody to race against, but I use it as a challenge that I have to overcome.”

Braun is the only male among the six. The females are junior Kathryn Lubahn of Pine Island and freshmen JoLynn Super of Spring Lake Park-St. Anthony Village, Stacy Bates of Andover, Rose Hollerman of Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and Abby Donkers of Kenyon-Wanamingo. All six are solo performers in meets because of limited participants.

“I was excited but a little scared when I first heard that we would be able to compete,” said Super, an 800-meter racer with spina bifida, a condition involving incomplete development of the spinal cord. “I’ve never done track before this year. I really like it. It keeps me involved in more activities.”

Super and Braun are among many young athletes with disabilities in Minnesota who turned to the Courage Center, a sports and rehabilitation facility based in Golden Valley, to develop their interests in sports. The center has programs in various sports, including basketball and swimming, for athletes attending schools that don’t have adapted teams.

News of the MSHSL’s decision in February to permit wheelchair participation in track and field was well-received at the Courage Center.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Junior Mamea, sports coordinator at the Courage Center. “Parents had been advocating very hard for their kids to compete at the high school level. People should realize that times are changing.”

Mamea called Braun, 17, a “poster child” for the Courage Center’s efforts to help people with disabilities through sports. Braun, also born with spina bifida, has been involved with the center since he moved to Minnesota at age 5. He was brought to Minnesota in 1999 as an orphan from his native Jamaica by Mounds View residents Claire and Warren Braun, who became his adoptive parents.

Braun’s affiliation with the Courage Center led to his participation on the U.S. junior basketball team, which won the gold medal at the 2009 Paralympics in Melbourne, Australia. Braun has competed in basketball events with the Courage Center in Philadelphia, Seattle and San Diego, Arlington, Texas, and Rockford, Ill.

Braun also is a shortstop for the Mounds View-Irondale-Roseville co-op adapted softball team. He hopes his extensive sports background will motivate more high school students with disabilities in Minnesota to participate in track and field.

“I really appreciate the high school league for doing this,” Braun said of the ruling. “It means so much for us to be able to compete…to show that we’re participating in a high school sport like everyone else. It means a lot to be able to be out there on the track with your peers and not be separated.”

Braun is tuning up for a USA track and field meet this summer in Wichita, Kan., an event that could lead to his participation in the 2012 Paralympics in London. In the Greenslit Relays, Braun shaved nearly 6 seconds off his season-best time in the 1,600 meters, from 4:25.07 to 4:19.47. He posted his second-best time in the 800 meters with a 2:07.00.

Braun, however, will miss the chance to compete in this year’s state track and field meet. He has a previously scheduled commitment to return to his home country, a trip that includes a visit with Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding in Kingston, the nation’s capital.

With the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Braun is leaving June 9 for a 10-day trip to Jamaica to help raise awareness for orphans in the country. Braun will attend a party at two orphanages, where he will help distribute toys to the growing numbers of kids at the facilities. He is scheduled to meet with Golding on June 14.

“I want to help make a change down there,” Braun said of Jamaica’s orphan problem. “I want to see smiles on kids’ faces. I want to show how much someone can be valuable when they don’t have anything. Every child is gifted with some kind of ability.”

Seventeen years ago, Braun was one of those kids. Before Braun came to Minnesota, he said he was told by a staff member at an orphanage where he was living that he had been abandoned by his mother at birth – his tiny body left in a trash bin behind a bank in Ocho Rios, a resort town on Jamaica’s northern coast.

Braun said he was told a police officer, Mark Brown, heard him crying and took him to a hospital. That’s how Braun said he got his name.

“I changed a few letters of my last name when I got adopted,” Braun said smiling.

Braun credits his survival to Claire and Warren Braun, as well as Feed My Starving Children, a faith-based charity in Coon Rapids that sends food and clothing to orphanages in small countries. Braun said he has never had any contact with his natural parents and holds no bitterness toward them. He said he has no plans to look for them during his visit.

“I don’t look back at my past,” Braun said. “If I spend so much time trying to find my parents, and question why I was abandoned, I would never get anywhere in the world. There are so many positive things that can happen in my life if I just keep moving forward. My ultimate goal is to be a public speaker and work in law enforcement. I want to be a CSI (criminal science investigator), somebody who helps find people and catches criminals.”