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Clearing All Hurdles : Titan Coach Kamaka Refuses to Let Tragic Accident Keep Him Down

May 21, 1997|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — The day remains so vivid, locked away in his mind's eye. Ron Kamaka had worked out, done a few things in the elementary school classroom where he was teaching in Hawaii, had lunch with his sister, and then went with a girlfriend to a beach to enjoy one of the last few days of summer vacation.

The sun was warm and bright, the water a dazzling blue. A wonderful day to be young, healthy and so full of fun.

An outstanding athlete at Rohnert Park High in the Bay Area and a former captain of the Arizona State track team, Kamaka decided he'd do some bodysurfing.

After only a few minutes in the water, he found a wave but took it late. Then, when he tried to roll out of it, the surf grabbed him and tossed him into a sandbar.

It was a day that changed his life, and nearly ended it.

Seven years later, it is another warm, sunny day, and Kamaka is doing something he has always wanted to do: He is coaching track. He is an assistant at Cal State Fullerton.

"I feel blessed," he said. "I love what I do. I love the challenges of working with kids and doing the best I can to help them."

But the bar has been raised for him.

Kamaka, who soared above 7 feet numerous times as a college high jumper, is paralyzed.

He has no feeling in his body from the lower part of his chest down. He is able to move his arms, and he can use his hands to some extent, but gripping is a problem.

It has been a long, and sometimes agonizing battle for him to get to this point. The accident shattered his fifth, sixth and seventh vertebrae, dislodged a disk and severed his spinal cord. He spent 5 1/2 months in the hospital for surgery, recovery and rehabilitation, and when it was over, he knew he might be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

But he had come within a gasp of death, and somehow survived.

"When I went under the water, I couldn't move," he said. "I tried to hold my breath, but it was really difficult. I remember blowing out my last breath of air, and taking in a mouthful of water. I had accepted the fact that I was going to die. But just at that moment, somebody from the beach pulled me up. I never lost consciousness, and I could tell my body felt different."

After lying in the hospital bed for several months, Kamaka knew he was at an emotional crossroads.

"I was at the point where you either continue to dwell on your situation or you move on," Kamaka said. "I decided to move on. I got on a plane and came back to live with my mother in Irvine. She and my brother were my care-givers that first year."

In therapy, he saw others in more difficult circumstances and he was challenged by it.

Kamaka says he decided he "wanted to do something productive," and volunteered to help at Los Naranjos Elementary school in Irvine. The principal, Bruce Baron, welcomed the idea.

"The kids were terrific, and it was great for me," Kamaka said.

He also became a volunteer coach at Woodbridge High.

Then, in 1995, Kamaka learned that Cal State Fullerton Coach John Elders was looking for some help with his track team. Again, Kamaka volunteered.

"I went over there to apply, and John asked me to work for a little while with one of their high jumpers, Zaylore Stout. He watched and listened, and about five minutes later, he walked over and said, 'The job is yours.' "

Elders remembers.

"I guess I was a little apprehensive at first," Elders said. "I mean, here's a guy in a wheelchair. I had never had that much experience with anyone like that. I guess it was the fear factor. I probably was a little taken back at first."

Watching Kamaka working with Stout quickly ended any of his concerns.

"I could recognize right away that he knew his stuff and could work with an athlete," Elders said. "When I look at him now, I don't even think about him being in a wheelchair. It's sad that other people might think the way I did at first. Anyone who thinks of him as being different is really missing out."

Kamaka, 34, says dealing with the changes in his life was difficult for himself as well.

"I'd always identified myself as an athlete," he said. "I know now I'd always had a fairly shallow perspective. I had to totally relearn who I was. And that was a painful process. When I was an athlete, I'd show up on a basketball court and always be one of the first players picked to play. But sometimes as a disabled person, you're picked only if the space permits it. That took a lot of patience for me. It was very difficult for me to ask anyone to do something for me."

For a while, when he started coaching at Fullerton, Kamaka took city buses to the campus. It was a three-hour trip each way. "And there were a few times I missed the last bus in Santa Ana, and had to wait there until around 9 o'clock when I could get a ride from there with a friend," he said, remembering it with a smile.

Only in the last couple of years has Kamaka had a van with special equipment that enables him to drive himself. "That makes a big difference for me," he said.

The schedule of a coach works well for him.

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