I first saw Steven Walker on the Wonderwood Bridge during a summer evening. My Honda Accord chugged onto the bridge when I noticed him riding eastward as I headed west. He was in a wheelchair, and not the kind you see a new mother being wheeled out of the hospital with a newborn in hand. The wheels of Walker’s turned inward at the top, causing them to roll at an angle that added speed and agility for the driver.
Then I realized something else — he had no hands. Literally, no hands. Yet this man in his early 30s speedily flew up the bridge’s incline in fluid strokes. I looked in my rearview mirror as I passed him and watched him reach the bridge’s peak.
Steven Walker competitively plays on a title-winning quad rugby team right here in Jacksonville, Florida. Wheelchair rugby, if you aren’t aware, is a team sport for quadriplegic athletes that combines elements of rugby, handball and basketball. In teams of four, players carry the ball across the opposing team’s goal line.
Last April, Walker and his team, the Brooks Bandits, won the national championship for Division 2, their first title. In 2014, Walker was invited to tryout for Team USA’s Paralympic team. He didn’t make the team, but an invite-only tryout opportunity is hard to come by, Walker said.
Walker had been playing on the team, which is affiliated with Brooks Adaptive Sport and Recreation, shortly after being discharged from his amputation surgery in 2012. His hands and feet were amputated in order to remove a rare bacterial disease. There was a huge memory gap for Walker during that time.
“It happened just after my 30th birthday” Walker said. “I went to sleep one night and then woke up three months later looking like this,” he said as he lifted his handless wrists, taped with white athletic tape. “During that time there were three amputations to my hands and feet and face and teeth. Then within 24 hours, I woke up after [those surgeries].”
Before the amputations, Walker always enjoyed working with his hands. He graduated from Full Sail University for game design, worked on a few projects, and then picked up a construction job.
After waking up from the coma, Walker was approached by Alice Krauss, the founder and project manager of Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation, to get get him involved with the program.
Walker tried a couple of sports before setting his sight on wheelchair rugby. “When I was in rehab, I could barely push my wheelchair. I was trying to figure things out all over again and after going to a couple of practices, the sport actually caught my eye,” Walker commented. “My body started to become more rehabilitated. I realized that this could be really good for me. I thought, ‘Why try to figure everything else out?”
The adaptive sports program, which is free and funded by Brooks Rehabilitation, started in 2006 and has served individuals with disabilities, Kraus said. About 50 of the currently 700 active members participate in the competitive athletes track, including Steven Walker.
That program funds and provides equipment to those athlete in return for community service, maintaining a weekly workout log and just keeping a professional image. “It’s a way to inspire and encourage others to look beyond the limits; you can be an athlete, a competitive athlete for that matter,” Walker said.
Since Walker joined the Brooks Bandits, life really has never been better for him. “You continue to learn on and off the court about your disabilities as well as others, while learning more about life, before and after the chair. It’s brought a lot of opportunities for my life that I wouldn’t have had if I had gone to work that day. I could’ve still been drilling holes at job sites.”
In 2014, Walker was invited to tryout for Team USA’s Paralympic team. He didn’t get a spot but that didn’t get Walker hung up. “I’ve only been playing for two years and I’m a true believer in athletes earning their spot,” he said.
Working hard has been a recurring trait that keeps Walker rolling to the next shot in his life. “That’s why I major in math, because it seems like the more effort you put into it, the better you’ll get at it.” This philosophy applies to him when it’s game day on the court. “You focus on one team at a time, it’s for anything else, you can’t focus your mind on too many things at once, otherwise it’s going to throw off your day on the court.”
Knowing how to keep one’s cool on the court is a valuable but difficult skill to master for any athlete. But the competitive nature of sports can be an intrinsic reaction for athletes. “We’re all competitive. We all want to to win and continue like that when you get off the court. Because when you’re off the court, it’s nothing.”
A lot of the Brooks Bandits players, and many persons with disabilities, often don’t have outlets to express themselves on a day-to-day basis, Walker said. “But they can come [to Brooks] to be themselves and not have to worry about anything. You don’t feel like you’re judged here.”
Outside of the world of rugby, Walker simply likes to keep things fresh. He loves traveling and has recently been on a handful of cruises to the Caribbean. The escapism brought on by traveling is refreshing. “You find that happiness that you need to help you get through the next year or two,” he said.
Walker isn’t the kind of person to settle on something, but one who relishes in learning new things. “Curiosity keeps life exciting. There’s always something around the corner where there’s new information there to enlighten you for the day. Just like with rugby, I didn’t really know what to do with my life, but rugby seemed like something new and fun. That’s what you have to do, always change things up. You can’t always do the same thing.”
As he and his teammates prepare for tournaments in the fall, he’d like to get into mathematical research after graduating from the University of North Florida. To learn more about the Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation, go to brooksadaptivesportsandrecreation.com or call (904) 345-7314.