Harry Williams American Adventure is a Truly Humbling Experience
Tuesday 6th October 2015 @ 13:46 by Becky Cahill
Comment Droylsden Longform News

Droylsden’s HARRY WILLIAMS reports on heading to the United States as a sports coach at a unique sports camp for some remarkable young people…

Du Quoin, Illinois, USA, is a small town just seven miles long, five hours south of Chicago with a population of just 6,000 people.

Enclosed it may be; normal it sure isn’t. You see, each year since 2012, the town has come together with mother-and-son founders Sam and Jana Kuhnert to make NubAbility Athletics as big a success as it could possibly be.

NubAbility is an annual, three-day sports camp for limb-different athletes between four and 17 years of age and takes place at Du Quoin’s local high school.

The range of sport varies from tumbling to volleyball and even amateur wrestling and grappling.

The children are allowed to pick one focus/priority sport and a second choice sport which contrasts between age groups.

The camp has been going strong ever since its inception and the numbers of children and coaches grows year after year.

This summer, there were 138 children on site with missing hands, arms, legs and feet – some missing virtually all the aforementioned limbs – as well as 44 coaches in the same situation.

Children enjoy being physical and last year many picked football as their main focus sport.

However, once they learned they could slam each other onto the turf, wrestling and grappling quickly became the second choice.

The numbers on the mat grew and with that, so did the number of wrestling coaches.

The coaching squad consisted of MMA’s first professional amputee MMA fighter Keith Miner, myself with my vacterl syndrome club hand, amputee high school wrestler and now professional wrestler Zach Gowen, amateur MMA fighters and congenital amputees Nick Palmer and Nate West, with Kentucky’s BJJ brown belt Eric Myers and double-leg amputee BJJ white belt Neil Brown picking things up on the grappling side.

This was my first trip anywhere in the world further than the Republic of Ireland and, nervously, one I was making alone.

I had spent many hours watching YouTube videos and Facebook pictures of the camp so I would have some idea of what to expect. There was so much to anticipate and prepare for.

If you’re born with a limb-difference, adaptation is an unconscious state. It just happens. You do things without thinking.

Having to adapt following a change in normal life is obviously a much, much harder task.

Having grown up in mixed martial arts through family, adaptation for myself has been largely common.

But despite my adaptations, I felt lost when thinking about how I was going to sit down with some of the 17 focus sport children who were missing legs to teach them sporting skills.

I had never been around children with limb difference my whole life, despite my own disability. I feared I’d struggle to figure this out and might fail these children as a coach.

Surprisingly, some of the children actually wrestled on their school team.

Friday morning was the first day of camp. Prior to this, all we had were names on a register along with each student’s disability.

As NubAbility tradition goes, all the children wait in a tunnel with the coaches and are called out individually, giving each one their star moment as everybody applauds.

It’s a very emotional set-up.

As each youngster runs out to their chosen field, the sight was amazing. It’s difficult to describe in words alone.

It wasn’t long until the coaches and I had each child teamed up on the mats, drilling for the camp newbies and teaching the first-time wrestlers.

Some clicked with the ways of wrestling, some had trouble, but nonetheless each child stuck to it.

Ignorance of course is bliss as a child. They won’t quite realise the extent of their difficulties until later in life and that’s something beautiful.

Running shuttle sprints with no feet, balancing on a pure nub alone is downright incredible and something you don’t see every day.

The people at camp were right. There was no way to prepare for what I would eventually be part of.

The whole time on site, there was this amazing buzz. Ultimately, it was infectious. Smiles were everywhere. Children were greeting friends alike and parents were swapping advice with one another.

Once you walked through those high school doors, nothing else in the world mattered. There was no room at the inn for negativity.

There was one moment during the Saturday afternoon session, just after the lunchtime break where coaches Nick Palmer and Nate West took over.

With everything being such a blur, I had not allowed myself a chance up until that point to have a moment and realise what I was involved with.

I sat at the corner of the mat with a young boy called Grant who was fixing himself up. After a brief check-in to see how he was doing, he was back to getting physical.

This was my moment of awe. I sat there by myself for just 30 seconds, looking around, and it took my breath away. I had never been so dumbfounded.

I had never met anybody with a limb disfigurement like mine or worse before this, so seeing all of this in one go was a lot to take in and incredibly emotional.

Shortly after this, I experienced the most humbling moment of the entire trip. I was refereeing a match between two of the children and saw a young boy wandering around the mats whom I hadn’t recognised before.

After the best-of-three match ended and I moved on, I felt three taps on my hip. I turned around to see a little boy named Will Grace.

He was a congenital amputee on the left side. I crouched down and, in the words only an innocent child would say, Will asked: “Can you teach me how to wrestle?”

In an instant, a million things ran through my head. Just how exactly do you respond to that?

Where do you start, when, out of all the other coaches, a child asks you to take them aside and teach them? I lost myself in that moment. It was such a humbling statement.

The third and final day of camp is much shorter than the previous two. The morning is a round table discussion with the students and coaches in a Q&A form.

Following that, there is time for some fun and games to end the physical side of camp on laughing terms.

The closing ceremony sees each sport perform a lap of the basketball court to applause and waves before presenting your group with gifts to help continue the elected sport in daily life as well as saying a few words about your students.

Head coach of our team, Nick Palmer, awarded Sam Holt of Minnesota with a special mention.

Sam had no legs from the waist and had disfigured hands. He was quiet, shy and a mellow character. All he wanted to do was wrestle.

It wasn’t until Sam managed to get physical that his true character shone. His confidence just grew and grew. He was defeating wrestling partners as well as the children’s able-bodied siblings.

The close of camp is a sad time. Just as quickly as it began, it’s over for another year.

I’m happy I was offered this second chance to fly over and get involved in this camp.

Not only did it solve problems for me, it’s allowed limb-different children across America to meet people of their own age and realise that there are people out there just like them – something I didn’t have as a child.

Incredible stories were shared through that weekend. It may have been a blur, but it’s the greatest blur you could ever imagine being part of. Until next year, I suppose?