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Wheelchair Racers Prove They Have Right Stuff

January 19, 1987|MARCOS BRETON | Times Staff Writer

Deep down, it bothers Doug Vann and Dan Larson whenever people cheer them on during one of their early morning workouts.

More than anything else, both just want to be treated like other athletes.

But the two San Diego residents always draw a much different reaction from people than the joggers who exercise with them in Mission Bay Park shortly after dawn.

Vann and Larson are wheelchair athletes. They raced Sunday in the Mission Bay Marathon, which began at the Hilton Mission Bay, ran north to Grand Avenue, and then wound through Crown Point, Pacific Beach, Ocean Front Walk and back to Mission Bay.

During months of training for long-distance races, Vann and Larson became accustomed to the sort of reaction they received along the race route Sunday--exhortations and honking horns coaxed them as they sped along practice runs at 15 miles per hour in their custom racing chairs.

But the men, friends for the past year who share a desire for independence, could do without some of the support. For the most part, they feel people are driven by pity to cheer for them.

And they don't want anyone's pity.

"I wish people wouldn't say to me, 'God, your courageous,' " said Vann, a 25-year-old native San Diegan.

Larson, 26, agreed. "If a jogger runs down the street people aren't going to yell, 'Way to go!' the way they do to us," the San Diego State business student said.

"You don't want to blast people for supporting you," Larson added, "but sometimes it's a bit much."

The hoots from the side of the trail can distract a wheelchair racer, who by the nature of his mode of transport must be more careful than the average jogger.

"One time I hit an embankment in the road and just catapulted out of my chair," Larson said, adding that only his pride was damaged in the fall.

"A jogger doesn't have to watch for anything," Vann joked. "Me, I've got to make sure I can get my chair where I want to go."

Vann came in first among wheelchair competitors Sunday with a time of 2:40.23 while Larson was second with a time of 2:52.51.51.

Wheelchair athletics helped Larson regain his self-confidence after a car crash in August, 1984, left him paralyzed. Following extensive therapy in Minneapolis, his hometown, he moved into a building designed for handicapped people.

Rooming exclusively with disabled people almost convinced him, he said, that he was destined to live his life "out of the mainstream."

"The people who lived in that building would just sit around all day and wait for the mail to come in," Larson said. "They never wanted to do anything,"

Had he not met some people from a wheelchair racing team, Larson said, he might have ended up like his neighbors in his building.

Vann, who studies computer science at Grossmont College, also suffered from a lack of confidence after a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed nearly three years ago. Like Larson, he lost his job after he was disabled. The months following therapy were difficult for a young man who had been an avid football and racquetball player.

"I would drive around for hours looking for something to do," Vann said. "I would be embarrassed to get out of my car, because I didn't want anyone to see my chair."

After meeting each other while working out in Mission Bay Park, Vann and Larson decided to begin training together. They push their chairs as far as 20 miles some days, and cover 75 to 100 miles each week to stay in condition for racing.

Living on disability payments, neither Vann or Larson finds it easy to afford what is a surprisingly expensive sport. Placards seeking a sponsor to help with expenses hang conspicuously from the backs of their chairs.

"A good chair could run you $2,000," said Larson of the lighter, more aerodynamically designed wheelchairs used in competition.

Last year, Vann and Larson entered a string of races, including a marathon in Detroit and the Wheels of Fire race in Seattle, an international long distance competition. Vann won several local long-distance races. Usually, Larson finished not far behind.

Someday, they hope to enter such prestigious events as the Boston Marathon. And they hope no one will blink as they coast by.

"We're just like everybody else," Vann said. "It's just that we do sitting down what everybody else does standing up."

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