TAMPA — If it weren’t for the Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay program, 14-year-old Eric Lowry would not be the accomplished athlete he is today.
The wheelchair-bound teen, adopted by Shannon and Dave Lowry from a Ukrainian orphanage at the age of 5, was born with spina bifida, an incomplete development of the spinal cord.
While thrilled to be part of a family he could call his own and to live in a community that welcomed him with open arms, he often felt sad when other kids were experiencing joy in sports activities.
Fortunately, Eric’s negative feelings were short lived.
About seven years ago, the Land O’ Lakes resident joined Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay, a program of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department for kids with disabilities. It is among the more than 100 community-based programs established by the Paralympic Division of the United States Olympic Committee.
Last month, he and his teammates celebrated PSTB’s first-place win in the medium team division of the National Junior Disability Championship Games at Iowa State University.
Overall the team earned 44 medals — 26 gold, 15 silver and three bronze. It also set seven national records.
Eric returned home with awards of his own. Among them were six gold, eight silver and one bronze. Moreover, his name was added to the U.S. Paralympic track watch list, meaning if he continues to be a standout performer in adaptive track and field competitions he could potentially earn a spot on the prestigious U.S. Paralympic team.
“It’s a real asset to the Tampa Bay area to have a program like this,” Dave Lowry said. “Through this program they get what other kids get but they also get to be around kids, like them, who have disabilities.”
Sixteen-year-old Christina Lang, of Dunedin, a first-year PSTB participant, excelled in the swimming competition at the event, earning 10 gold medals and one silver award.
The daughter of Shannon and Michael Lang had her left leg amputated above the knee at age 2-and-a-half due to a blood infection she contracted during a bout with chicken pox.
But that’s not stopped Christina from living life to its fullest. In addition to swimming on the PSTB team, the honor-roll student and rising high school junior is a member of her school’s able-bodied swim team. She’s even enjoyed scuba diving and white water rafting.
“I’m so glad I joined Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay because they’re like a family and they push me to do my best,” said Christina.
Christina and her mother credit PSTB coordinator and head coach Andy Chasanoff.
“He sets you up for success,” Christina said.
Her teammate, Beecher Bruno, 16, of Northdale, who was born with cerebral palsy and also adopted from a Ukraine orphanage by parents Jeannie and Mike Bruno, garnered 13 awards in the competition: eight gold, three silver and two bronze. In addition, he was the Spirit of Excellence Award winner in the track and field events category.
“I can’t say enough about how the Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay program helps these kids with their self-esteem,” Jeannie Bruno said. “It’s also a good way for them to develop some great friendships.”
Scarlett Lawhorne, 18, of Zephyrhills, also has spina bifida and has been involved off and on with PSTB for 13 years.
In the Iowa contest she won two gold medals, in archery and table tennis. She also brought home three silver medals in track and field events.
“This program has definitely made me more outgoing and more independent and I’ve made lifelong friends along the way,” said Lawhorne, an upcoming freshman at Pasco-Hernando State College.
Chasanoff couldn’t be any prouder of the athletes’ performances.
“These kids were awesome,” he said. “Their hard work and dedication certainly paid off.”