Last year Bliss Welch didn't get to attend the SPARC watersports day at Possum Creek. As Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, she was in Houston for the Ms. Wheelchair America competition.
The 33-year-old Harrison resident and 2014 Ms. Wheelchair America first runner-up got to ski Saturday, however, as one of 30 adults and children with disabilities taking part despite a continuous drizzle.
Counting the volunteers, 195 people attended the annual event held at the First Lutheran Church camp property by Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
"I did get to do their training session last year in June, so this wasn't my first time to ski, but this was my first time at this event," said Welch, who suffers from limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and has needed a wheelchair the past six years. "This was very interesting with the rain beating you in the face, but it was great."
Welch said she tried water skiing in her young days and never got up on the water, so the adaptive skiing equipment -- of various types, aiding a variety of disabilities -- actually has allowed her to do something new in her life.
"This enables us to do something we never thought we'd be able to do, and it's all thanks to Debbie and Jerry Hightower and all these other volunteers," she said. "I was shocked this morning when I got here and saw how many people were here despite the weather. And all the volunteers had smiles on their faces. They're as glad to be here as we are."
Two first-time participants Saturday, paraplegics Johnathan Grimes and Jeremy Williams, also never had water skied before their accidents but had been very accustomed to physical activity. They, too, were very appreciate of what SPARC offers.
Grimes, 33, who's from Monteagle and was a firefighter, an emergency medical technician and an Army reservist before the auto accident in Palmer that cost him the use of his legs, credited Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation therapists David Barron and Matt Annessi with hooking him up with a SPARC handcycling event.
"I woke up to a whole new world [after the wreck]. Everything was turned upside down," Grimes said. "I had to fight through depression for a long time, but once that was over I knew I had to get back as active as possible. This [skiing] is something different, and I always try to do something different. I'm always up for a new experience, and it's fun to get out on the water and do something most people don't get to do.
"It's still physically challenging, even though you're sitting on something, and I like physical challenges. I wouldn't have those if it weren't for programs like SPARC."
He's in a support group with Williams at Siskin and told the younger man about the watersports day.
Williams, a 25-year-old Hixson resident, has been in a wheelchair for three years -- since falling three stories from a building in Nashville and landing on his back.
"That was one of the only times in my life that I got drunk based on my emotions. I was blackout drunk," he said candidly. "I woke up on a window sill and attempted to climb off on my own but slipped. I thought I was dead. I had a collapsed lung and couldn't yell, so I said a prayer and told my mother [who wasn't there] that I was sorry, but I woke up two days later in Vanderbilt Hospital."
Williams was a Middle Tennessee State student and has told his story to "about 1,000 people" in the "Greek life community" at the Murfreesboro school. Before his fall he regularly ran about 30 miles a week, he said.
"Running was my passion. A half marathon was my favorite race," he said. "Ironically -- miraculously -- it was a runner who found me and called 9-1-1. I never met him, but I think about him all the time."
He skied twice before lunch Saturday and took pride that he was able to get on the water without an "outrigger" attachment to the wide ski he sat on.
Will he come back?
"Yeah, absolutely. It's empowering."
That explains why Brian Penny from Soddy-Daisy keeps returning to SPARC day -- and skiing five or six other times a summer with Chattanooga and Knoxville adaptive groups. Now 23, he just graduated from Bryan College as a history major.
And Stephanie Dodd was back, planning to ski after nearly five years off the water. Throughout the SPARC event's 23-year history, she has been a continual inspiration with ski tricks that took her to international disabled competition.
Another first-timer Saturday was Emily Grace Stitts, who has an ultra-rare "chromosome 2 deletion" that caused doctors to predict she "might barely talk and probably would never walk," according to her father, Bayside Baptist Church pastor Eric Stitts. "But she's 13 and doing great."
Emily went on an adaptive snow-skiing trip in January with the Hightowers and others, and she said she couldn't wait Saturday "to go again" after her initial trip around the water. Then she was looking forward to seeing her brother in a "Peter Pan" production later in the day.
Connie Petty was the boat driver who pulled the first skier on the first SPARC outing, and the physical therapist and runner from North Chattanooga has been driving boats for the event ever since.
"What this really means is that today we're all just water skiers," Petty said Saturday. "We're not disabled; we're not able-bodied. We're all just out here being water skiers."
In addition to longtime sponsors such as Tim Higdon with Pepsi and Ed Pickett, Debbie Hightower's brother, with Belk, Walgreens has become increasingly helpful the last couple of years, including taking some photos and making them free for families. An Ooltewah Walgreens employee, Imogene Vaughn-Hisey, was back Saturday with her granddaughter and adopted daughter, Skylar, who happens to be this year's Little Miss Wheelchair Tennessee.
Skylar, who has cerebral palsy, recently returned from a 3,800-mile, 14-state family vacation in which -- among other things -- she got to round the bases of the "Field of Dreams" in Iowa. But few activities match SPARC's watersports day for her.
"If this was something we could do every month or so, we wouldn't be here today," her grandfather/dad Steve Hisey said. "But this is once a year and she loves it so much, we had to come. And you look around and see everybody having such a great time. That's what it's all about."
Contact Ron Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6291.