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Kayakers paddle toward independence

By: matt steiner matt.steiner@gazette.com
July 23, 2013 Updated: July 23, 2013 at 5:45 pm
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photo - Volunteer Dan McCollum, left, Steve Hirst an adaptive kayaking lesson Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Prospect Lake. The lesson was art of the National Sports Center for the Disabled's Summer Adaptive Kayaking Road Trip. Hirst is a former Air Force F-15 pilot who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Volunteer Dan McCollum, left, Steve Hirst an adaptive kayaking lesson Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Prospect Lake. The lesson was art of the National Sports Center for the Disabled's Summer Adaptive Kayaking Road Trip. Hirst is a former Air Force F-15 pilot who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

One-by-one a string of kayaks launched into the shimmering waters of Prospect Lake Tuesday morning.

Five students and several instructors from the National Sports Center for the Disabled and Team River Runner set out on the calm water as temperatures neared 90 degrees shortly after 10 a.m.

"It's fun," said Elise Polacek, a 17-year-old student who has spina bifida. "I have a kayak of my own."

Polacek and her mother were at the boat launch for the third straight week of adaptive kayaking classes. Pat Polacek said paddling helps her daughter strengthen her core muscles and improves balance. Elise Polacek, an incoming Pine Creek High School junior who got her kayak for Christmas 2011, needs braces to walk and a strong upper body helps.

"She really enjoys doing it," Pat Polacek said of the activity that uses almost all upper body. "It helps keep her active with something that's not as frustrating to do."

The classes run for eight Tuesdays at the lake southeast of downtown Colorado Springs.

The goal is to help physically and mentally challenged outdoors enthusiasts not only learn the sport, but also strengthen balance and coordination while "forcing them to deal with anxiety issues," said Frank Hackney of Team River Runner. The nonprofit organization began in 2004 to provide health and healing for veterans and active duty military personnel wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Steve Hirst, 54, sat in his wheelchair moments before venturing onto the water. His kayak was equipped with small outriggers to assist with balance.

Hirst, who was flying F-15 airplanes in Alaska in 1996, said a car crash left him with traumatic brain injury. The former Air Force major said he ran into a telephone pole, hit his head and spent the next month in a coma.

Hirst struggles to speak, stand and move but tries to keep active. He likes camping, swimming and lifting weights. He recently took up kayaking.

"You feel good when you're going across the water in a boat," Hirst said.

According to Hackney, the physical activity of paddling helps people like Hirst regain coordination and establishes muscle memory that helps with brain injury healing.

Hackney said kayaking on rivers and in whitewater serves a dual purpose for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those with PTSD not only learn to cope in anxious situations, but the activity "gets them out of the barracks and gets them away from the alcohol and drugs," Hackney said.

Veterans often return to the adaptive program to help teach other wounded comrades the sport, Hackney said.

Team River Runner has chapters in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Denver. The Denver chapter is located at the office of the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. NSCD is also based at Winter Park Resort.

River Runner ad the NSCD teamed up with the city of Colorado Springs' Therapeutic Recreation Program for the 8-week adaptive kayaking class that ends Aug. 27. The NCSD will also hold paddling classes in Telluride in early August and in Grand Junction in September.

"This is kind of an equalizer," Hackney said. "Everyone is on a level playing field whether they're disabled or not."

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