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Higher Ground Shows Cheerleader and Veterans the Possibilities
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Tuesday, October 25, 2022
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Makayla Noble watched intently as Jeff Burley showed her how to slip a special glove that included a grip reminiscent of that of a fencing sword over her tiny hand. Strapping the glove around her wrist, he then inserted a fly-fishing rod in place.

Then he pulled back on the rod showing the teenager how to flick her wrist, sending the fly on the end of the line hurtling towards the E-Da-Ho pond in a canyon outside Bellevue.

 Noble, who had been paralyzed nine months earlier in a cheerleading accident, had never tried fly fishing before. But Burley, Gary Vinagre and others with Higher Ground were changing that.

They also were teaching her and nine other disabled athletes, including a bilateral amputee and a policemen shot through the eye, how to mountain bike, kayak and more during a week-long camp held in partnership with Adaptive Training Foundation.

Adaptive Training Foundation is a non-profit Dallas-based organization run by former University of Idaho linebacker David Vobora, who earned the title of Mr. Irrelevant when he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams with the final pick of the 2008 NFL Draft.

The mission: To offer access and inclusion to individuals living with physical impairments by empowering them through exercise and community.

Oliver Whitcomb stood in a clearing near the pond teaching a handful of athletes using wheelchairs how to shoot a bow and arrow. A couple were amputees. One was paralyzed. One not only wore a prosthetic on her left leg but needed an adapted glove that would enable her to draw her arrow back.

“Archery teaches patience,” observed Sandie Acker, who had hosted the athletes at her Flight Archery Studio in Hailey the night before.

Whitcomb instructed the budding archers in the art of inhaling and holding their breath as they prepared to let the arrow zing, as well as the art of pushing and pulling.

“A lot of it is mental. It has to do with where your eyes go,” he said.

Whitcomb pointed to a target embodied as a pronghorn antelope.

“Aim for a hair. Pick your spot on the antelope,” he said. “Take your bow and point at it. Now, take the bow hand down by the string like you’re carrying a suitcase, and wrap the bow with as little pressure as possible. The biggest mistake everyone makes is stopping the act of pushing and pulling when they let go.”

“I thought it wouldn’t work doing this by myself, but I did it,” Noble said.

Noble broke her neck becoming paralyzed from the neck down when she was dropped during cheerleading practice. But she decided she wanted to walk across the stage at her graduation next May and, so, she enlisted in Adaptive Training Center’s nine-week personalized gym program.

“They got me out of my chair and I crawled the entire length of the gym,” she said. “I was told I would never be able to lift my arms over my head. And now I can lift 30 pounds over my head. Getting out of the hospital and seeing what others were doing changed my mindset.”

Her week with Higher Ground only showed her more of what’s possible, she said.

“Idaho’s crazy beautiful. It’s very refreshing being in nature—I love it.”

David Vobora started a sports performance training center for elite athletes and U.S. Special Forces  after he retired from five years in the NFL in 2012. He founded the Adaptive Training Program to restore hope through movement and redefine the limits of individuals with disabilities after challenging an Army staff sergeant who was the United States first combat quadruple amputee to a workout.

“He said, ‘I don’t have arm and legs,’ and I said, ‘That doesn’t matter—you can still do something,’ ” Vobora said.

Vobora assesses athletes using 27 workouts during the first week. Then he puts them through a regimen that includes weights, conditioning, breathing techniques and other stress combatting strategies. Those with spinal cord injuries who have never gotten out of their wheelchairs by themselves are told their house is on fire and they have four minutes to vacate.

The workouts are supplemented with such activities as paddleboarding, rifle shooting, golfing and indoor sky diving.

“Gym is our sanctuary where we’ve inspired more than 250 athletes,” he said. “People see our program as physical, but it’s about their mind. We reposition it from ‘won’t’ to ‘can’t.’ That’s how you empower people. Coming here to Idaho and working with Higher Ground takes it one step further—I’d like to include a winter program, as well.”

Cassie Eckroth, 22, played tennis, biked and spent time on the lake wakeboarding growing up in Reno, Nev. But while taking a surf lesson in Maui in April 2021 she felt a shooting pain in her back as she stood up to catch a wave.

She pushed through her discomfort. But, by the time she returned to shore, she was unable to stand. Doctor determined she had suffered a rare spinal cord injury called surfer’s myelopathy that paralyzed her from the waist down.

Eckroth was determined to continue to live an active lifestyle despite her injury, adding a new dream of competing in the Paralympics to her bucket list. She began that journey by enlisting in nine weeks with Adaptive Training Foundation and was jazzed about her time with Higher Ground.

 “This trip has been incredible,” she said. “I’ve found new sports that I enjoy doing and definitely want to pursue in the future. I sent it down the hill at mountain biking and I’m going to buy a bow for archery when I’m back home.”

The Higher Ground Camp helped put into practice habits the athletes learned in the gym, helping them to become comfortable being uncomfortable, said Colin Anderson, chief of staff for Adaptive Training Foundation.

“Growth is not given. It’s earned. And this group has put in the work to overcome the adversity they have faced with their physical disabilities,” he said. “They can now go out and use this experience to become force multipliers and catalysts for their communities.”

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