Students Who Use Wheelchairs Find Freedom on
Rock-Climbing Tower

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By Gene Kruckemyer
UCF Today

Inch by inch, participants pull themselves to the top of UCF’s adaptive-climbing rock tower, ascending high above their wheelchairs and achieving new heights that others sometimes think they can’t reach.

“It feels like a bit of freedom,” said Katherine Torres, a student majoring in health services administration who has a muscle weakness that doesn’t allow her to stand or walk. “I’ve always been one to challenge myself. And when a lot of people say I can’t do something — just watch. I didn’t know what to expect, but when I got half way there I thought to myself ‘I’m going to keep on going. I can do this.’”

Some other universities in Florida offer rock climbing to their students, but UCF is the only one to have an adaptive climbing wall, giving students with limited mobility a chance to climb, said Nathan Vink, assistant director of UCF’s Outdoor Adventure program.

This summer the Recreation and Wellness Center provided special training to eight staffers to jump-start its new adaptive-climbing program.

“This is a growing focus in recreation — to look beyond the able-bodied student and offer opportunities to all students, whether with physical or mental disabilities,” Vink said about the campus Student Assisted Workout program. “Our goals are also to try to reach the students who aren’t here yet, to open up opportunities. We have students who don’t have the same abilities, but they do have abilities.”

The adaptive-climbing program empowers students, whether beginners or experienced, to reach their potential on the 41-foot tower.

“They challenge themselves. They set their own goals,” Vink said. “We don’t tell them they have to reach the top. We’re supportive of what they want to achieve.”

The center trained staffers in the techniques of harnessing climbers in the equipment and controlling the safety ropes as the participants ascend. The climbers use a handlebar-style device that grips a rope and slowly ratchets them upwards as they repeatedly pull downward on the bar.

The ratchet system requires a quarter of the strength that other climbers would need to ascend the rope. There are different seat harnesses with various strapping and padding to help with pressure issues, and participants with prosthetic limbs can use the equipment in a way to help propel them up the rock face.

Torres, who also works in the Recreation and Wellness Center, said she heard about the campus climbing tower two years ago when she was a freshman, and has long wished she could somehow try to scale it — even if the prospect of ascending the tower was a little intimidating. And now with the staffers on duty to help, she has made the trip up twice.

Kristen Cioce, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, was hesitant at first to try the tower, but said she went up to fulfill a promise to one of her physical trainers — and it was an exhilarating experience that she’d do again if the opportunity came up.

“It was not something I was looking forward to doing. At first it was something I was trying to get out of,” said Cioce, who graduated last month with a master’s degree in social work. “But it’s an amazing opportunity that UCF offers.”

Vink said the staffers also talk with the climbers to allay any fears about heights or falling. And as the climbers ascend, staffers “belay” the safety ropes — or take up the slack to prevent slips.

“Every student is unique,” he said. “We just try to see how we can help them.”

Three students used the system during the summer, and now that the fall semester has started, Vink expects others to check out the adaptive-climbing experience.

What advice do the veteran climbers have for others?

“I highly recommend it to any student who has inabilities,” Cioce said. “Just follow your gut if you’re being led to do it. You don’t have to get to the top.”

And while people in wheelchairs usually feel smaller than others, Torres said, “This is a time to feel bigger than everyone. You can have a different perspective.”

For more information about the climbing program or to schedule a climb, visit http://rwc.sdes.ucf.edu/facilities/climbing-tower.

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