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The Great Outdoors: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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Starting Over

Huntington Beach Man Goes From Party Animal to Wheelchair Sports Ambassador

May 23, 1997|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Andy Houghton's life story has a Hollywood quality to it. He's hoping a movie maker will buy it someday.

Houghton took many things for granted when he was younger. But now, he's thankful and doesn't seem bitter about the motorcycle accident that left his legs paralyzed.

In fact, the accident that could have taken his life nearly 12 years ago gave him a road to a new one.

He was once a nonactive, self-proclaimed rebel and party animal. He was once sedentary and overweight.

But now he is a physically fit, well-muscled athlete who participates in and promotes a wide variety of activities. And all of this developed after he was confined to a wheelchair.

Houghton, a 30-year-old Huntington Beach resident, has taken a 10-plus-year journey to become an ambassador for wheelchair athletics.

He is director of wheelchair sports at Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation Foundation in Pomona. He regularly cycles on the beach, water skis and plays roller hockey. He has also been snow skiing, sky diving and mountain biking.

Houghton runs local sport camps for wheelchair athletes, works with the disabled, speaks at various hospitals and clinics and even hosts a cable television show that focuses on wheelchair athletics.

"They're going to make a movie out of my life," Houghton says, flashing his on-camera grin.

Seeing where he came from, that might not be a farfetched idea.

Houghton's parents divorced when he was 9 and a nasty custody battle ensued. Over the next several years, Houghton was constantly uprooted. One month he would be living out of a hotel in Arizona, then he would be in San Diego or moving to Thousand Oaks.

And as Houghton described it, he "acted out."

"I received a drunk driving citation when I was 16," Houghton said. "I was young. I liked to party."

Three years later, it all came crashing down. Houghton's father died after being in poor health, then Houghton's reckless lifestyle resulted in the fateful accident in September 1985.

"I was out with some friends in Santa Monica, driving around my motorcycle like a madman," Houghton said. They got separated, but Houghton said he remembers climbing back on his motorcycle to go find his friends.

"Then I woke up in the emergency room," Houghton said, "and they told me I had a spinal cord injury."

Houghton dealt with the disability as best he could, or at least that's what he thought. It took a simple snapshot, some six years later, to make him re-evaluate things.

"I looked at this picture of me and I looked all bloated," Houghton said. "I was 30 pounds overweight. I thought I looked terrible and I said to myself that I was going to start working out and get into shape."

Things began to turn around when Houghton got a job with a Costa Mesa medical supplies company. That helped provide a form of "self therapy," Houghton said, because he came into contact with a lot of newly injured people at the hospitals he visited. And in 1993, he met Joe Babakanian, who introduced Houghton to his first lightweight wheelchair and "showed me the light," Houghton said.

That year, Houghton also tried snow skiing for the first time.

"I was thinking that this was insane," Houghton said. "I was really missing out on something."

Houghton wants to communicate his feelings of excitement. One vehicle is the four-day camp he runs in Long Beach, teaching the disabled water skiing, kayaking and other sports.

One major barrier is letting people know about the variety of activities available, Houghton said.

"A lot of things I have to do in person," Houghton said. "Just meeting people on the streets, seeing that although we may be in wheelchairs, we can be active."

Sure, Houghton wants to educate the masses about wheelchair athletes and afford other disabled people opportunities to participate. But he wants to make it clear that he doesn't want people to be singled out just because they are in wheelchairs.

"People with disabilities are participating in sports that aren't any different than what any able-bodied person can do," Houghton said. "What bothers me is there is sometimes a patronizing attitude, like, 'Oh, that's really neat what you're doing for them.'

"I want people to appreciate these athletes because it's a great thing and it's exciting, not because it's just so wonderful that we're active even though we're in a wheelchair.

"We're all athletes."

Babakanian is a professional athlete, and has several sponsors for wheelchairs, tennis rackets and other equipment. He pointed out that gains are being made, one of the most significant being the introduction of a wheelchair pro division for the U.S. Tennis Assn. championships.

Babakanian also plays hockey and he's excited about that sport's future.

*

"I think hockey will enable able-bodied people to really look at that game, see us play and really go, 'Wow,' " Babakanian said. "Let's face it. People want to see action. We've kept the impact in the game. It's fast, people are crashing into each other, it's hockey."

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