Speed, Waves & Wheelchairs

Amy SilvermanNovember 21, 2019
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Jarrett Martin at Skydive Arizona near Eloy; Photo by Michael Woodall
Jarrett Martin at Skydive Arizona near Eloy; Photo by Michael Woodall

Whether the playing field is the ocean, the sky, a golf course, a pool or a rugby court, each of these seven Valley athletes is performing at the top of his or her personal game. Each is disabled. Like any athlete, they take part for different reasons – to compete, to travel, to get better, to make a living, to prove that they can do it. Winning looks different for everyone, but when asked whom they are doing it for, the answer from these athletes is universal: “Myself.”

The Skydiver
Jarrett Martin

An hour or so southeast of metropolitan Phoenix, the town of Eloy is so quiet that you’re more likely to encounter a lizard or a roadrunner than a motorist at the rare stop sign. But this is the home of Skydive Arizona (skydiveaz.com), billed as the world’s largest skydiving facility.

That’s the draw for Jarrett Martin, a professional “parachute rigger,” i.e. one who maintains and packs parachutes. The Arizona City resident is also a skydiver with thousands of jumps under his belt – and, perhaps more pertinently, his butt.

On a recent Saturday morning, the sky above Eloy is polka-dotted with brightly colored parachutes making their approach above the drop zone. Each of the skydivers lands on the grass, taking a few seconds to adjust to the ground before walking away. The last skydiver from this particular planeload comes in fast and hard, a perfect descent. But he doesn’t rise; instead, Martin waits for a friend to bring him his wheelchair.

Martin, 30, has been jumping out of planes since he was 9, a third-generation skydiver raised in the family business in Toledo, Washington. When he was 18, he attempted a parachute stunt in Hawaii that left him with a broken back. He was in a coma for a week, in the ICU for a month and in the air again after six months.

Martin wants to make it clear that his accident didn’t take place during a traditional skydive like the one he just completed. He was jumping off a mountain, trying to control a parachute that collapsed prematurely. “You can imagine a young 18-year-old who just wants to go out there and thinks he’s invincible. And I just kind of bit off a little bit more than I could chew on this one particular skydiving stunt,” he says, recalling it was about 10 seconds from “Oh, shit” to “Oh, here it comes.”

Photo by Max Haim, courtesy Jarrett martin
Photo by Max Haim, courtesy Jarrett martin

He admits he still performs dangerous stunts, pulling his legs up alongside himself before making impact. “It could be worse,” he says, shrugging. “I could be addicted to heroin or something like that.”

Martin is handsome, with twinkling Army green eyes. He recently returned to Eloy from travels that included Dubai and Washington state, and our conversation is interrupted repeatedly as friends come by to say hello.

He’s not only here for the skydiving, Martin says. It’s the camaraderie that means the most, the support from this tight little community. He recalls his own first post-injury jump as “terrifying” and celebrates whenever a person who has been injured shows up at Skydive Arizona to jump again.

“The whole community is like, ‘Come on, let’s get back in the airplane,’” he says. “It gives me shivers just thinking about it, you know?”

The Golfer
Amy Bockerstette

Amy Bockerstette is not particularly pleased about lugging her heavy golf bag out to the grass. On this mid-September Tuesday, summer hasn’t begun to let up, and Bockerstette’s morning golf lesson at Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City won’t be too comfortable.

But it will be familiar. Bockerstette is outside more often than not, taking lessons, practicing with her team at Paradise Valley Community College and playing in tournaments.

Unlike her teammates, she gets a caddie when she’s competing – the only acknowledgement that Bockerstette has Down syndrome, a genetic condition that can affect cognitive and physical abilities.

Trim, with red hair and pale green eyes, Bockerstette is a busy young woman. When she isn’t fulfilling the course requirements to maintain her scholarship, she studies piano and dance, works at T.J. Maxx, spends time with friends and works out in the gym.

Amy Bockerstette at Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City; Photo by James Patrick
Amy Bockerstette at Palmbrook Country Club in Sun City; Photo by James Patrick

Not long ago, she attended an LPGA leadership camp where she was asked to identify her superpower, which she recounts as she relaxes on the country club patio after her lesson.

“I am strong. I am confident. I am proud to be happy,” she says.

Bockerstette demonstrated all of those things earlier this year when she hit a par on the 16th hole at a practice round before the Waste Management Phoenix Open, impressing her partner, reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland – and the world.

Photo by James Patrick
Photo by James Patrick

Her father, Joe, was pleased but not entirely surprised. “She joined the high school golf team as a freshman. They were leery but supportive. Everything she does, it’s a first. That’s just life for her,” he says.

Bockerstette made the varsity team her sophomore year. Joe says that putting is her favorite, but he thinks her greatest strength is her accuracy off the tee. She doesn’t hit the ball far – but she’s typically very straight.

What does she like about golf? “I like the fun people. I like meeting new people,” she says.

And the coolest person she’s met? “Gary Woodland. He likes golf. He likes birthday parties, but he can’t come [to mine]. He was an amazing golfer and best friend.”

The Scuba Divers
Linda Impagliazzo & Sharon Malone

Linda Impagliazzo and Sharon Malone are ready to dive in – literally. The friends are cleared to scuba dive just as soon as they can get to the ocean. This meant training in a swimming pool and then here at Lake Pleasant, just like it would for anyone in the Valley wanting to go deep.

Malone is thrilled to be done with training, which means long wait times outside in the heat and time underwater in the perhaps not-so-aptly named Lake Pleasant.

“It’s so cloudy and so dusty – if you can make it through those conditions, then you can make it through any other scuba experience,” she says.

Malone, who lives in Mesa, rides roller coasters, kayaks, skydives and camps.

Diving duo Linda Impagliazzo (left) and Sharon Malone at Bartlett Lake; Photo by Michael Woodall
Diving duo Linda Impagliazzo (left) and Sharon Malone at Bartlett Lake; Photo by Michael Woodall

“I just have to do it in a different way,” she says. She uses a wheelchair since an accident rolled her car four or five years ago, tearing her ACL, fracturing her pelvis, and breaking her spine in two places.

“I was gone for about seven months in recovery,” she recalls. Her kids were 2, 4 and 7 at the time.

“I need to teach them as well that you’re not defined by something. The only person that can really stop you is yourself.”

Before the accident, Malone, an insurance agent, says she worked “all the time.” She recently got a job working with peers who have sustained spinal cord injuries and she loves her work, but she’s focused on her kids, and on being a role model.

Photo by Michael Woodall
Photo by Michael Woodall

Now that she’s certified, she and her teenage son hope to swim with sea lions and dolphins. “It’s funny how above water, that’s my territory, where I can control what happens. Below water, you’re in somebody else’s territory, and it is an amazing experience. It’s very freeing. You’re just taking in the moment, and it’s a whole different life that’s down below.”

Malone and Impagliazzo met at a camp for people with spinal cord injuries, called Camp with a Ramp, and decided to train together to scuba dive, though they each have their own plans for future excursions. Impagliazzo plans to dive with her mom. “My parents were in the Navy, and they used to go scuba diving when I was little and they’d bring me back shells or starfish,” she says.

“My dad and I went parasailing together [but] my mom and I never do any big-ticket items,” Impagliazzo adds. “I’d just love to go to clear, clear waters and just experience it with my mom.”

Impagliazzo has quadriplegia as the result of a gunshot wound she suffered at the hands of an acquaintance in 2002. She lives in Tempe and works as a telephone operator at Chandler Regional Medical Center.

Both Malone and Impagliazzo say they are impressed with Rob Lowe and his team at Saguaro Scuba (saguaroscuba.com) in Mesa. “They were so accommodating and they listened to the therapist as to how to lift us and better ways to do things,” Impagliazzo says.

Malone appreciated learning how to stay calm. “Underwater you have to make decisions,” she says. “You can’t panic. You just have to figure it out.”

The Rugby Players
Ernie Chun & Joe Jackson

Ernie Chun (left) and Joe Jackson at Ability360 in Phoenix; Photo by Michael Woodall
Ernie Chun (left) and Joe Jackson at Ability360 in Phoenix; Photo by Michael Woodall

The first thing you notice about wheelchair rugby (also known as “murderball”) is how loud it is. When two players intentionally crash their customized chairs into each other, you feel it in your stomach – and pretty much every other part of your body. And that’s just what it feels like on the sidelines.

“It’s like mini car crashes,” one player explains.

This sport is not for the faint of heart, and it attracts some badass athletes, like Joe Jackson, a former high school football player, and Ernie Chun, a surfer. Both sustained spinal cord injuries playing the sports they loved – ultimately moving on to rugby.

Wheelchair rugby is pretty dangerous, too, but players don’t wear helmets. “Just protect your head when you fall,” Jackson says, smirking.

The game – the subject of an acclaimed 2005 documentary, Murderball – has taken these men all over the world, but they are here in Phoenix by design. Jackson is from the Valley, but Chun relocated here specifically to train at Ability360 in Phoenix, and to play with the Ability360 Heat. Ability360 is a completely accessible sports facility with a pool, gym, track, basketball courts and more, located at a Phoenix office park that also houses various organizations serving people with disabilities.

The name is pretty much where the similarity to traditional rugby begins and ends. This is a contact sport blending elements of handball, wheelchair basketball and ice hockey.

Why play? “I’m just competitive,” Chun says, laughing. “We can’t even have friendly board game night at our house.”

And what about people who see these guys as inspirational? Chun shakes his head.

“We just want to be looked at as athletes,” he says. “We train, we do nutrition, we have families, we gotta balance our sport life with our home life. Just like anyone else, you’ve got to want it.”

The Surfer
Nixon Romney

On a steamy August day, it’s business as usual at Big Surf, the ubiquitous Valley water park. Look a little closer, and you’ll notice something different in the wave pool: dozens of newbie little surfers, each accompanied by their own personal instructor.

Daniel Romney takes a rare break to stop and admire the action. Romney’s son, Nixon, has cerebral palsy and autism. Nixon is nonverbal and deaf. A long time ago, Daniel put aside the dream that the two of them would someday play sports together. A 2013 family trip to Big Surf changed his mind.

“On the way home, he was screaming and didn’t want to be leaving the wave pool,” Daniel says of his son, who was 4 at the time. The idea for Surfing with Nixon was born.

Nixon Romney; Photo by James Patrick
Nixon Romney; Photo by James Patrick

It’s a simple concept – put a kid with autism in the water with an experienced surfer. Parents are on-site to cheer and offer the surfers advice about how best to reach the child, and the results are evident as cheers erupt from the crowd each time a kid gets up on a board. This year, more than 400 kids participated in Romney’s annual event. Pro surfers flew in from all over, he says, joining locals.

The wave pool is reserved for the participating kids, and families get use of the rest of the park at the all-day event, typically held in late summer. This year’s was the sixth annual at Big Surf; Romney also has a program in Mexico. (Learn more at surfingwithnixon.org.)

Nixon, 11, isn’t interested in being interviewed today – he’s too busy with the water. His father points to a neon orange dot floating off to the left of the wave pool. Huge fans blow air at those not partaking of the water, and the smell of hamburgers grilling hangs in the air.

It’s only noon, and the event will go nonstop until 8 in the evening, Daniel says, pausing for another cheer and grinning.

“It keeps our lives exciting.”

Nixon Romney catches a set at Big Surf with his father, Daniel.; Photo by James Patrick
Nixon Romney catches a set at Big Surf with his father, Daniel.; Photo by James Patrick