Despite disability, no brakes on her life
By Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org July 20, 2014 5:14PM
Ella Chafee, 69, of Oak Lawn, is a medal winning US Paralympic athlete. Husband Ian has supported her efforts. | Steve Metsch~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 22, 2014 6:15AM
Facing a room filled with about 100 kids who are Oak Lawn Park District summer campers at the Oak View Center, Ella Chafee wasn’t sure what to expect.
After nearly an hour of chatting with the kids, Chafee was smiling broadly. So were many of the children. The visit, the second annual Olympics Day at the day camp, had gone very well.
“They (the kids) were fabulous. There were some repetitive questions. I usually say how I got disabled but I forgot to do that. So I was amazed when that question came up,” Chafee, of Oak Lawn, said.
Chafee, 69, has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio at age 6 when she was a self-described “Tom boy.” However, she didn’t let losing her ability to walk stop her.
A wheelchair athletics pioneer, Chafee won silver and bronze medals in swimming at the 1964 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, won a gold medal in track in 1968 in Israel, and then returned with the U.S. fencing team in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, but shed in Atlanta. She didn’t medal in Atlanta, but shed in Atlanta. She didn’t medal in Atlanta, but is proud to be a Paralympic athlete and wore her red, white and blue polo shirt from ‘96 on Friday.
Chafee has been selected to compete in eight major international competitions, including three Paralympics. She finished first in swimming and track in the 1964 contest in Tokyo and was tops in women’s foil in the 1996 games in Atlanta. She has set national records in swimming and track and once held two world records in swimming. She has qualified for and competed in 25 consecutive National Wheelchair Games/National Championships — the only known woman to have accomplished this.
Though rotator cuff issues and creeping arthritis limit her activity these days, in her 46 years of competition, Ella has accumulated more than 100 national and international gold, silver and bronze medals.
Those glittering achievements didn’t seem to matter much to the kids, who were more interested in asking questions about how she was able to function in a wheelchair while competing in sporting events.
Emma Scott, 9, of Oak Lawn, though the visit was “awesome.”
“I never knew people in wheelchairs could do sports like she’s doing,” Emma said.
About the only sport athletes in wheelchairs can’t part in is gymnastics, Chafee told the children.
“I do horseback riding and gymnastics. I’d like to be in the Olympics,” Emma said.
Another summer camper, Hayli McKenzie, 13, of Oak Lawn, was impressed.
“I thought it was cool and I was surprised they have so many sports for Paralympians, and that there are Paralympians. I thought there was just regular Olympics and Special Olympics. It’s cool. She made an impact,” Hayli said.
Hayli enjoys gymnastics, cheerleading and track. “And I like to play football but they don’t have a girls’ football team. I like (playing) quarterback or wide receiver,” she said.
Perhaps she can take a page from Chafee, who didn’t know sports were available for the disabled until she began studying at the University of Illinois. When that happened, the girl who at age 6 “was faster than anybody in the neighborhood” was off to the races.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said.
Her favorite sport remains basketball and she’s proud that she was the first woman to sink a three-pointer in an international competition.
Success in the Paralympics doesn’t guarantee expertise in all sporting events, Chafee said.
“I’ve played Wii with my grandchildren. I’m not very good at it,” she said.
Several kids took great interest in the box that contains the gold, silver and bronze medals she’s won as a Paralympic athlete. And after Chafee spoke with the children, she allowed several to take a spin around the room in her basketball wheelchair, the one without any brakes.
“There are no brakes because you don’t want to stop,” she said with a smile.
Come to think of it, that wheelchair sounds a lot like Ella Chafee.
Contributing: Donna Vickroy