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Racers in Wheelchairs Are Roll Models in a Tough Person's Sport

November 21, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

It was a cloudless morning and people whose horizons once seemed a dark gray sat in their ultralight, aerodynamic wheelchairs in front of the Long Beach Convention Center and prepared to race.

An able-bodied woman, dressed in runner's clothing, said, "It amazes me watching these people. I'm mesmerized."

Jim Knaub of Long Beach, a world-class wheelchair racer and an actor, was there. But he wasn't racing, although when the wheels started turning he looked like he wished he were. He said he is retired.

"I've been racing six years," said Knaub, who twice won the Boston Marathon and holds most of wheelchair racing's records. "I've done all there is to do."

But he's still heavily involved in the sport, working for Invacare Corp. as a specialist in the development of high-performance wheelchairs.

A handsome man of 29, Knaub wore a blue windbreaker and sunglasses and was in his van, ready to lead the racers along the 13-mile course in the wheelchair division of last Sunday's Long Beach Half Marathon. He was the event's honorary chairman.

The race started and with the Long Beach shoreline as the backdrop, George Murray of St. Petersburg, Fla., moved quickly to the lead.

"Does that exhaust bother you?" Knaub called back to Murray, who was furiously "hammering" (turning) his wheels.

Murray said it was no problem.

Near the Queen Mary, a taxi pulled between Murray and the van.

"This is beautiful," Knaub said sarcastically as he looked in his rear-view mirror.

The cabbie kept going.

"You fool! You fool!" Knaub hollered. "Get out of the way."

A policeman on a motorcycle accompanying Knaub said, "What a dumb bastard."

"That's why I'm not racing, pal," said Knaub.

Knaub is a fierce defender of wheelchair racers, especially those who were athletes before they were crippled, and bristles at suggestions they are inferior to runners.

"When we first started competing, runners would look at us and say, 'Isn't that incredible," Knaub said. That was a decade ago.

"Then our times improved and we started racing them for first place. Things got a little nasty. They said, 'It's not fair, you have a mechanical advantage."'

Knaub said most runners are nicer now. Along the course Sunday, the runners applauded the wheelchair racers.

"But there are still pockets of athletes (runners) who don't feel we're at the same level as they are," Knaub said.

"One said to me, 'You're not an athlete, what have you done?' And I said to him, 'Who the hell are you?' He was nothing. I am an athlete who happens to be in a wheelchair."

Knaub was a state champion pole vaulter at Lakewood High School in 1974 and a Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. champion at Cal State Long Beach. He cleared 17 feet 2 inches in 1976 and was an Olympic trials finalist. His whole life, which had been aimed at the Olympics, was on course.

Dreams Smashed

Then in 1978, a car crashed head-on into his motorcycle in La Mirada, smashing his dreams and a good part of his body. He is paralyzed from the waist down. "And from the neck up," he likes to joke.

Knaub recalled the first months after the accident. "Part of me was frustrated," he said. "I had been jumping real well. I said, 'Why me?' But a deeper part of me said, 'This is where I'm supposed to be.' We all have our role to play. I'm enjoying myself, although I wouldn't recommend a wheelchair for anybody."

Murray was on Ocean Boulevard in Belmont Shore now and cruising along, all alone in front. He would hammer for six seconds, then coasts for five.

"Yeah, all right," cheered a spectator.

Knaub and Murray, now probably the sport's king, were longtime competitors.

"I beat him often enough to be satisfied," Knaub said.

A man on a bike called to Knaub, who was checking out a female jogger.

"What's going on?" the man asked, his bike easing inside the orange cones that marked the course, irritating Knaub.

"We're having a cone-setting-up championship," Knaub said.

Murray was soon coming back on Ocean, far ahead of the other wheelchair racers and the runners, who were going by in the opposite direction.

One of them was a kid who was hammering the best he could.

"Good job, Jody, just hang in there," shouted Knaub, sticking his head out of the window.

The kid was Jody Kemp, 14, of Jackson, N.J., who is just starting out in a sport that Knaub had inspired him to take up earlier this year. This was his third road race.

"This is the highlight of his life," Knaub said. "He looks at people in this sport as role models."

The race was turning off onto Shoreline Drive for the home stretch.

Two girls on bicycles rode in front of Murray, almost brushing him, which made Knaub incredulous. "People are unconscious, unconscious," he said. "And the cops are standing there looking for coffee and doughnuts."

Murray, 38, who has broken the four-minute mile in a wheelchair, took the race easily in 56 minutes and won $900. He looked at a gadget on his chair which told him he had averaged 14.2 m.p.h. with a top speed of 25.9.

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