Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SPORTS >> An inspiration to others

Leader sportswriter

Inspiration is important to Richard Vaughn.

In fact, the only thing he likes better than inspiring others is when they inspire him, which often occur simultaneously.

Those flashes of inspiration happen to Vaughn frequently as he makes his rounds on one of three wheelchair marathon practice courses he has laid out on the streets of Jacksonville. And giving inspiration to Richard is simple: just honk and wave at him.

It is a small gesture that goes a long way for someone who has been a source of inspiration for many throughout the years. Vaughn, paralyzed from the waist down since age 17, has lived a life rich with athletic feats and personal accomplishments in his 59 years, and he’s far from done.

From his younger years as one of the original Rollin’ Razorbacks to his current gig of wheelchair marathons – he’s won 12 of the 18 events entered – Vaughn is more interested in the cause rather than the hardware.

His next event will be the Waddell and Reed Kansas City Marathon, a 26.2-mile course set around the 17 majestic fountains throughout the city on Oct. 15. It will be Vaughn’s third trek around the City of Fountains to bring awareness to leukemia lymphoma, and he’s raised over $7,500 for the cause to date.

“Leukemia picked a fight with me as it were,” Vaughn said. “I broke my back at 17. When I was rehabbing at Easter Seals, I watched three kids die from leukemia. And now, a guy I work with is dying from leukemia.”

His motivational website offers a poster of Vaughn wearing all of his marathon medals that can be purchased, with the proceeds going to fight leukemia.

Vaughn lists three reasons why he enjoys participating in wheelchair marathons – to stay healthy, to help charities and because marathons are a social sport. And instead of using a special racing chair that can climb to 35 miles per hour, he gives the others a fighting chance by using a standard day-to-day chair, the same one he has used for over two decades.

But he still beats them most of the time.

“Clark Kent couldn’t get this chair up to 15 miles-per-hour because of the small front casters,” Vaughn said. “The front casters would do the shopping cart thing. The racing chairs weigh about three pounds – my chair weighs 28 pounds. As often as not, I beat them. And the reason is because they don’t do well going uphill.”

Vaughn also holds the world record for the 10-nautical-mile run (11.7 statute miles) in a wheelchair with a time of 1:37.

Vaughn was a star basketball player for the Searcy Lions during his high-school years, and was heavily recruited by the University of Arkansas. But an 85-foot fall from tall scaffolding while working a summer job shortly after graduation changed his plans forever.

“I turned 18 and 19 in the hospital,” Vaughn said. “I had a lot of time to think about it. I’m sure I went through the same gambit everyone else does, first denial, then convincing myself I would walk again, but I never really went through any bitterness.

“About six weeks into it, I also had a cardiac arrest. After I recovered from that, I just thanked God I was alive.”

Vaughn prepared himself while in the hospital for a lifetime of having to do things in a different way. That led to a 35-year stint in wheelchair basketball that included numerous national championships before maturity finally ended his career a few years ago.

But he has found equal success in marathons. Initially, Vaughn found training on the streets of Jacksonville to be somewhat of a hassle with people constantly stopping to offer him a ride or ask if he needed any help. That all changed with a simple solution provided by his wife – a headband. Now that he sports the headband on his training rounds, more people have a better understanding of what’s going on.

“It’s a little ironic, don’t you think?” Vaughn asked as he held out a sweatband that reads: “go walking.”

Who said inspiration doesn’t have a sense of humor?

And through it all, Vaughn has found that the greatest source of inspiration for him is to be told he is an inspiration.

“When someone calls you an inspiration, what are you going to do, quit?” Vaughn said. “In other words, when someone calls you an inspiration, it inspires you to keep going.”