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How D49 is Helping a Wheelchair Racer Change the World

Jess Markt While faculty members prepared for a new school year July 29 at Sand Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Jess Markt was racing on the outdoor track.

Markt, 37, of Boulder, is a man whose competitiveness began with basketball in grade school, and then took off with the high jump in college. He’s a lean 6-foot, 5-inch towering athlete with steadfast determination, and no feeling from his lower chest down.

“One minute, 24 seconds,” said coach John Zavada of Colorado Springs, shouting toward Markt, aggressively spinning his wheelchair for 12 laps, almost four miles. With the support of the high school, the disabled athlete is determined to reach a 1:20 lap pace over the upcoming weeks.

Markt is preparing for the overnight Hood to Coast Relay in northern Oregon, Aug. 22-23. Covering 199 miles, it’s known as the world’s largest relay. More than 1,000 teams of 12 competitors are scheduled to race from Mount Hood to Seaside.

Markt must complete three grueling legs, spanning roughly 15 miles.

Jess Markt  Zavada is an adaptive sports coach for Exciting Programs, Adventures and New Dimensions, or EXPAND, in Boulder. He started using the track at Sand Creek High School in District 49, near his house, while training the U.S. Air Force Wounded Warrior track team in 2010.

“No other school in the area has opened its doors like Sand Creek High School,” he said, defying rumors that wheelchairs are any more destructive to gym floors than basketball shoes. “They really role out the red carpet for us here.”

Zavada says adaptive sports are life changers. He’s watched teens with disabilities improve in independence and academics. Wounded warriors who thought they’d never participate in sports again are regaining motivation and self-confidence.

Markt lost control of his car Aug. 28, 1996. He dove off a cliff in West Linn, Ore., a southwestern suburb of Portland, a half-mile from where the University of Oregon sophomore grew up.

The 19-year-old’s car collided with a tree in mid air. The impact broke his back and severed his spinal cord. After two weeks of periodic consciousness, he fully awoke. He couldn’t move.

“I’ve stopped looking at myself as a guy in a wheelchair, or a wheelchair basketball player,” says Markt. “I’m an athlete.”

He’s now the manager and head coach, and a player, for the Denver Rolling Nuggets, a men’s wheelchair basketball team. He also coaches the women’s team. But none of it amounts to what he considers his full-time job.

Markt returned in June from Palestinian territories, where he’s helping to develop a wheelchair sports program, something he recently accomplished in Cambodia. In October, he’ll return to Afghanistan for his sixth time. He’s hoping to soon work in South Sudan.

“Starting these programs is amazing,” said Markt, who coached Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team to its first international competition in Italy.

“Year-by-year, I see people move from being marginalized members of a society to becoming internationally recognized athletes. It’s changing how they look at themselves and how their country looks at them, too.”

When he heads to Oregon in a month, he’ll relay in his adapted wheelchair, while several family members and close friends run.

“I’m the one who moved away, so I don’t get to see my family all the time, but being able to do this race again is special… my family is all very close.” Markt said, jovially, while they may be more focused on the fun, “We’re going to set a course record.”

Some 13 years have passed since his first Hood to Coast Relay, which he completed without a trainer soon after his injuries, admitting, “I kind of made it up as I went.”

“I just want to perform as well or better than I have done before.”

“As much as the United States is ahead in integrating disabled populations into society,” he said, discussing both developed and developing nations, “There is more to come here. And sports is the platform for it.”

“We understand our role in supporting our community,” said Matt Meister, communications director in District 49. “Our buildings are built by the community of District 49, and we make them accessible for more than classroom learning.”
Dustin Senger