published Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga water sports day a sight to see

Two non-disabled skiers help the boy in the middle on the triple bar during
the SPARC water sports day Saturday at Possum Creek. The triple bar was in
use for the first time at the annual July event and got a heavy workout.
Contributed photo by Keith Arimura
Two non-disabled skiers help the boy in the middle on the triple bar during the SPARC water sports day Saturday at Possum Creek. The triple bar was in use for the first time at the annual July event and got a heavy workout. Contributed photo by Keith Arimura

Melanie Smith did a lot Saturday in her first visit to the Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga organization's annual water sports day for the disabled.

She rode on a kayak, a tube and a boat. And she skied.

"The skiing was so fun. I want to do it again before I leave," she said soon after the huge lunch for the 216 participants and volunteers who showed up at the First Lutheran Church Camp on Possum Creek.

The 32-year-old is the daughter of Rick Smith, Hamilton County's superintendent of schools, and his wife, Janet, a Loftis Middle School teacher. Melanie's twin, Hilary, is a high school counselor at Howard. All three educators joined Melanie, who has cerebral palsy, for what is the biggest SPARC event of every year.

Melanie has done adaptive cycling with SPARC and the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department's therapeutic recreation division. The water skiing, she said, was "something different, and it looked like fun, and I had never done it before.

"I wasn't really nervous or scared. I was really very excited. There were a lot of people around, and it seemed very organized."

And it went great, she confirmed.

Skylar Vaughn-Hisey of Collegedale also has cerebral palsy, and she is only 9 but took part for the second year in a row. She was "really happy" at the 2011 event but wore out quickly; she was able to do more this year — tubing, kayaking twice and trailing a boat twice in a chair ski, giving thumb's-ups repeatedly.

Asked after her second ski loop if it was fun, she smiled broadly and gushed, "Yeah! You betcha!"

Her mother died soon after Skylar turned 4, and she really had not started talking yet, according to Steve Hisey, who with his wife, Skylar's grandmother, completed the process of adopting her in May. In noting how much progress she has made in the last few years, he said she has greatly enhanced their lives, too.

Said "Pappaw-Daddy" on Saturday: "How, when you look at that smile, can you feel like you've had a hard day? She's changed my outlook on a lot of things."

Another inspiring repeat participant is at the opposite end of the age scale — and with a very different set of disabilities. He's blind and deaf. Noble Powers, who turns 86 on Friday, lost his hearing as a boy, from fever complications, and in 1990 lost vision in his right eye. Then his left eye began deteriorating in 2002, but he communicates with hand-in-hand signs and animated expressions.

He's the president of the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Organization of the Deaf-Blind, Inc., and earlier this year at a camp near Dickson, Tenn., he rode a 200-foot-long zip line.

"Oooh, I loved it," he said through his son, Ralph, explaining that he wasn't scared despite having a sense of its height by having climbed 45 stairs to begin the ride. "It reminded me of when I was much younger and did some parachuting."

Encouraged to attend last July's SPARC event by TODB's Lana Newton, he was doused by a wave while riding in a pontoon boat, but that didn't dampen his enthusiasm, either.

"He had a blast," Ralph Powers said.

Upon his return Saturday, Noble Powers praised the helpfulness of the many volunteers and added, "I'm just trying to keep up with my son in doing a lot of activities."

Although the overall turnout failed to reach last year's record — some may have stayed away because of threatening weather that never reached Possum Creek — it still was one of the biggest crowds ever. And it drew the biggest group yet of blind and deaf participants, at least partly because SPARC had a "triple bar" ski device for the first time.

"That was a ton of fun," said Delfina Rodriguez, a blind 30-something who has become a somewhat accomplished snowboarder. Her sighted companions on the bar were Jessie Steele, one of Elaine Adams' staffers with Chattanooga Parks and Rec, and professional skier Barb Muren of Winter Haven, Fla.

"You can't do the splits on a board," Rodriguez said with a laugh after surviving two "face-plants" to get up Saturday. "And you have to use your toes and heels on a snowboard. I don't know what you use on skis. But we had a wonderful boat driver. It was great."

Brian Penny, a 21-year-old with spina bifida who is about to begin his senior year at Bryan College, came to his first SPARC day at age "6 or 7" and now enjoys similar events with Knoxville and Nashville groups. He leaves the tubes, kayaks and personal watercraft for others at SPARC day.

"All I do is ski," he said, noting that he took turns Saturday with Anjuli Hurt in deep-water starts.

His father, Martin Penny, has become an integral part of the Third Saturday in July. He oversees setting up tables and chairs and the food for lunch and the moving of garbage and other issues on shore, including cleanup. He's always one of the last to leave.

"Brian's mother started him in this, but she's a veterinarian and has to work a lot on Saturdays," Martin Penny said. "I started bringing him if she couldn't, and I figured that if I was going to be here anyway I might as well get involved."

As one of many perennial volunteers helping main organizer Debbie Hightower, he was doing his job Saturday despite still recovering from a fractured arm that had to be rebroken surgically and reset.

Even if he had a note from his doctor, "Debbie wouldn't take it," he joked, knowing full well that he wouldn't stay away even if she would.

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