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Paralympic athletes dominate the floor in basketball, rugby

It’s not that Nathan Carruth didn’t like sports when he was growing up. He did. Or that he wasn’t competitive. He was.

It’s just that having to play with a leg prosthesis made it difficult for Carruth to keep up with his able-bodied friends in playground football and basketball games.

Lee Browning was an active kid who played soccer, football and baseball and swam a bit as a youth. Then he was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia, a neurological condition that caused him to gradually lose sensation and coordination throughout his body.

By 21, Browning’s ability to stand and walk had been so compromised that he began using a wheelchair full time. He figured his days of participating in sports were over.

As it turns out, however, neither Carruth nor Browning had to end their athletic careers. In fact, both play on teams — the Las Vegas Silver Bandits wheelchair basketball team for Carruth and the Sin City Skulls quad rugby team for Browning — that will be playing in national tournaments during the next few weeks.

Nor are the men alone in playing sports while having physical, visual or neurological disabilities. Across the valley, in gyms and pools, on golf courses and tennis courts, and at ball diamonds and skate parks, are people who, like Carruth and Browning, once, and mistakenly, assumed the simple pleasures of participatory sports were out of their reach.

In many cases, these reborn athletes rediscovered sports through the Paralympic Sports Club Las Vegas. The program, operated by the city of Las Vegas and Clark County School District, connects Southern Nevadans who have physical disabilities with adapted sports opportunities. "We have school-age kids through adults," said Jonathan Foster of the city’s adaptive recreation program, noting that the Paralympic Sports Club Las Vegas’ roster of athletic activities includes tennis, track and field events, hand cycling, quad rugby, wheelchair basketball, goalball and swimming.

The disabilities that bring participants to the program include visual impairments, spinal injuries and such neurological conditions as cerebral palsy that make participating in physical activities difficult. What participants, whether casual or competitive, bring to the program is the simple desire to do what most people take for granted: enjoy the varied benefits of playing sports.

Carruth, 27, has been playing wheelchair basketball for about 12 years. Because he was born without a femur, the bone in his thigh, Carruth’s left foot was amputated when he was a baby and he wears a prosthesis that extends to his hip.

Carruth loved sports while growing up in Las Vegas. And, prosthesis or not, he loved playing sports — football and basketball, mostly — with his friends.

"Nothing ever held me back," Carruth recalled, although "I could never keep up with the kids. The other kids all had two legs, and they’d always outrun me and outshoot me."

Carruth dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He figures now that it had something to do with coming from a broken home — Carruth moved from Denver to Las Vegas as a kid after his parents’ divorce — but, looking back, he also realizes it might have had as much to do with never quite fitting in because of his disability.

When Carruth was 15, Pat McCoy, coach of the Silver Bandits, asked the teen if he’d like to play in the wheelchair basketball program here.

Carruth had never heard of wheelchair basketball. "When I came in, it was an absolute shock," he said. "I was like, ‘Holy smoke, you can play in a wheelchair?’ "

Carruth gave it a try. "The first time I got into a wheelchair, I was terrible, because 90 percent of this game is learning how to control your wheelchair."

The learning curve was steep. Carruth laughs. "Like seven years I played, and I just about never won a game."

Then McCoy mentioned to Carruth that seven universities have wheelchair basketball programs and told him that going to one "might be an opportunity for you."

Carruth, by now with GED in hand, was accepted into Southwest Minnesota State University. That, he said, "was when I really felt like I had a real handle on it. Two hours a day, five days a week, four to five games a weekend. I got a lot of playing time.

"I did five years. I started over 112 games. I was the 16th player in school history to score over a thousand points."

But, beyond the stats, college "completely changed my life," Carruth said. "I got my degree in business marketing with a business management minor."

Currently, he is looking for work. "It’s a tough economy," Carruth said.

The Silver Bandits’ regular season runs from November through April. Next month, the team — which has played its home games at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ McDermott physical education complex — will travel to Denver to play in the national championships.

They practice year-round, and Carruth figures he invests about 10 hours weekly in practice during the season. When he’s not practicing with the team, he’ll often work on his shooting alone.

During a recent Silver Bandits practice, Carruth was fiery, boisterous and aggressive. He wheeled downcourt effortlessly, shot with enviable accuracy and was fearless in using his chair — which, of course, happened to contain his body — to cut off streaking opponents, flipping over onto the floor twice before instantly righting himself.

"When it comes to wheelchair athletics, it really changed my thoughts about sports in general," Carruth said. "I’m a lot more competitive in a wheelchair."

He smiled. "Obviously."

Browning’s preferred sport also is played in wheelchairs on a gym floor, but Browning, 37, is a member of the Sin City Skulls, a quad rugby team.

He was discovered a few years ago, and completely by chance, by C.J. Arinwine, captain of the Skulls. He "saw me rolling down the street," Browning recalled. "They needed people to come out for the team and they asked me if I’d be interested."

Browning had heard of wheelchair basketball — even if, he said, basketball "had never really been my sport" — but knew nothing about quad rugby.

He went to an activity fair, checked out quad rugby and, he said, had an instant inkling that the sport would be "so much fun, and a real outlet" for his athletic instincts.

"It might be from actually being a fan of sports," Browning said, but being able to play has "really given me a positive attitude in life and for what I actually want to do.

"When we’re doing this, it’s not about what you can’t do, it’s more about what you will be able to do and how you’re going to be pushing yourself to be able to do that."

Browning is single and doesn’t work outside of the home, although he does volunteer time to nonprofit organizations. He figures that, in addition to the team’s weekly practice, he devotes at least 14 hours a week to weight work and conditioning to stay in shape for quad rugby.

The Skulls’ season runs from October through April — they practice at the city’s Chuck Minker Sports Complex — and the team typically will travel to four to six tournaments each season. Next month, the Skulls go to Birmingham, Ala., for the national championships.

In addition to having rediscovered the physical and emotional rewards athletic participation can bring, Browning has rediscovered what it’s like to be part of a team.

"You just love your teammates, and everybody becomes a family," he said.

Now, with his sporting appetite whetted by rugby, Browning one day would like to try out some other adapted sports, including both water and snow skiing.

But, even then, he has no plans to ever give up quad rugby.

"I hope," Browning said, "to be doing this for a really long time."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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