A baseball injury left him paralyzed at age 21, but Loren Worthington is back on the field as an “adaptive” sports photographer, leading him on an unexpected path to Rio.

Roll Camera

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: People Issue: September 2016
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This month, nearly a dozen athletes from Arizona will compete in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, from Glendale’s Allysa Seely, the paratriathlon champion who boldly bared her “imperfectly perfect” post-amputation residual leg in ESPN The Magazine’s 2016 Body Issue, to five of the 12 athletes on Team USA’s aggressive wheelchair rugby squad.


 

Adaptation

How does Loren Worthington shoot photographs with limited use of his limbs? 

• Worthington operated his first professional camera – a used Olympus C-550 – by resting the camera in his lap and controlling the shutter with an infra-red remote control he held in his mouth

• He later switched to an Olympus with a pivoting LCD screen that made selecting perspective easier, and added a tongue switch designed for skydivers to take hands-free in-air photos

• Worthington now uses a Nikon D4S and D800. He says the touchscreens on current digital cameras make it easier for those who struggled to operate buttons. 

Valley resident Loren Worthington will make the trip to Rio, too, but not to compete in any of the recognized sporting events. Worthington, a self-described “rolling photographer” who specializes in highlighting athletes with disabilities, has been selected by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, to be an official photographer for the Summer Paralympics. But that doesn’t mean Worthington won’t be engaged in a sporting challenge of his own.

“For me, photography is the sport,” he says, navigating his wheelchair around the living room of his North Phoenix home, which he shares with wife Karla, her son Emanuel and two very large Hungarian Vizslas named Annie and Amber. “It’s a chess game of trying to be where the action is going to take place before the other photographers. I know the able-bodied photographers are going to be able to run down to the field and get the shot without a lot of thinking involved. In my case, I’ll have to be thinking, ‘Okay, there’s two steps, but there’s a ramp all the way around that I can take if I go this way.’ There’s so many things for me to consider to get to the right spot to take the photo so that, when people see it, nobody even knows that I’m in a wheelchair.”

Chances are, Worthington’s photos will stand out from those of the able-bodied photographers at the Paralympics anyway, in the same way his photos for LivAbility, a free quarterly magazine for people with disabilities in Arizona, do by capturing the grace, power and personalities of disabled athletes from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

As the marketing director for the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center, a fully adaptive 45,000-square-foot facility near Central Phoenix that offers special equipment for the disabled like wheelchair-accessible weight machines and lift-equipped pools, Worthington says he meets inspiring people every day, who often become his portrait subjects.

“They relate to me, which makes it easier for them to open up and tell their stories,” he says, pointing to a cover photo with Olympic swimming champ Amy Van Dyken, paralyzed from the waist down after a 2014 ATV accident, whose goofy sense of humor is coaxed out in Worthington’s shots. “It increases the comfort level. When a photographer who’s not part of the disabled community comes in, there’s always an awkwardness involved in asking somebody with a disability to pose in some way, because the photographer just doesn’t know if he’s asking them to do something they physically can’t do or are offended by. So in a lot of photo shoots that you see of people with disabilities, the photo just doesn’t look natural. And that’s because there wasn’t an understanding of what the person could or couldn’t do. With me, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of what somebody’s going to be able to do, and I’ll just ask. More than likely it’s not going to come across as offensive, because they can see I’m in the same boat.”

Worthington, 52, was once a promising athlete himself, a pitcher on Horizon High School’s baseball team who continued to pursue the sport while studying economics at Arizona State University. Then one day in December 1985, Worthington sustained a major spinal cord injury during a game.

“I hit a great double that turned into a terrible triple,” he recalls. “I slid into third and banged my head up against the pitcher’s knee, and fractured my cervical spine.” The injury left him a level C-5 to 6 quadriplegic, meaning he lost function in his legs but retained some use of his arms, although, as he explains it, “my fingers don’t work too good.”

The accident derailed Worthington’s player aspirations, but he found he could handle a camera, with a few small modifications (see sidebar), which led to work as a sports photographer, mostly of athletes with disabilities.

Interestingly, Worthington says that while adaptive sports have made strides in the last 30 years (BMW built sleek racing wheelchairs for this year’s Paralympics competitors, and prosthetic legs have evolved into carbon-fiber “blade runners” that some say are more efficient than natural limbs), little has been done to make sporting events more accessible to media members with disabilities.

“People in charge of the press get nervous when I show up at events,” he says, noting that photographers are customarily herded through cluttered backstage hallways and stairways with no consideration of accessibility. “It’s like they never thought someone with a disability might work in the press. But somebody’s got to be the first out there doing it for things to come around.”

Worthington says shooting from a sitting position gives him a unique view of the action. “One of my favorite sports to photograph is adaptive table tennis,” he says. “Because when you’re playing on a wheelchair, the action and the players’ faces are all on the same level. So you see the striking of the ball and the expressions on their faces in the same frame.”

After Rio, Worthington wants to shoot the Paralympics and the Olympics. “I can always get a shot or two that makes me competitive with my able-bodied counterparts, but I have to be the most prepared,” he says. “No one’s ever going to beat me to the media tent, and I’ll probably be the last one out of the arena.”