Dennis and Joy Caswell have been waiting for nearly four years for the Oregon School Activities Association to explain to their son why he cannot be treated equal, they wrote in a letter to corporate sponsors of the OSAA mailed Wednesday.
The parents of Pendleton High School wheelchair athlete Brandon Caswell wonder why corporate sponsors continue to support an organization they say is not treating all athletes fairly and equally.
Brandon, a senior at Pendleton High School, will compete in his final OSAA Class 5A State Track and Field Championships May 18-19 at the University of Oregon in Eugene in his wheelchair. Caswell races in sprint and distance events, but at the state meet he won't be allowed to race with non-wheelchair athletes in his events at the same time.
"The most important thing to me is that I worked this hard to be a good athlete," their son, Brandon said. "To compete, I only got to do that in one sport, and that was wrestling."
Because no wheelchair was required in wrestling, Brandon was able to compete as a regular team member.
Also, the OSAA does not maintain all-time wheelchair event records in state meets, even though it keeps yearly results in those events.
The reasons? He's in a wheelchair, and wheelchair events at the state championships are considered exhibition events, of which the OSAA does not keep records.
"They're two separate disciplines, so we don't have them compete against each other," OSAA Executive Director Tom Welter said of wheelchair and non-wheelchair activities. "The advantages depend on a particular event."
However, it's up to directors of other meets during the season whether they will allow runners and wheelchair racers (to compete) together, said Brad Garrett, an assistant executive director who coordinates the state track meets.
"If they're saying they're having to run in their own heats, why can't the OSAA track their records, give them a medal like everybody else and let them know they can showcase their talents like everybody else?" Joy Caswell said.
Welter said wheelchair athletes earn medals identical to others' at the state meets.
"I think it's a little more complex than a wheelchair athlete competing at the state meet," Garrett said. "What we're addressing is how to be more inclusive. ... We could reasonably have Pendleton High School win a state championship in track because they have a wheelchair athlete and other schools don't."
Brandon Caswell competed in state as a freshman, but said he did not compete as a sophomore because he was qualifying for a national meet or as a junior because his wheelchair was damaged coming back home from another meet.
The Caswells pose a rhetorical question to corporate sponsors in the letter: "... Why he does not count and therefore cannot participate and score points alongside his fellow teammates?" But Dennis Caswell told the EO he's not sure how a wheelchair athlete can be scored.
"It's hard to figure out if there's an advantage or disadvantage," he said. "Not every team has a wheelchair racer, but not every team has a pole vaulter. I think he should compete along with other runners, but about points, I'm torn between that. I want to be reasonable, and I want to be fair."
Garrett said the OSAA executive board voted against allowing runners and wheelchair athletes to compete on the track together, but was not sure when the vote was taken.
"It seems like last year, we had a discussion about wheelchair athletes and what things they could compete in," said Sutherlin schools Superintendent John Lahley, the executive board president. "I can't recall if we took a vote on it or not; it seemed we discussed if it was exhibition or not exhibition and whether they could be counted for points. My memory is a bit fuzzy on it."
Kevin Hansen, who runs the non-profit organization World Wheelchair Sports in Eugene, says kids deserve recognition for their hard work.
"I'm grateful to the OSAA for giving the kids a chance to show what they've got," said Hansen, who has worked with the OSAA in coordinating wheelchair events for the state meets since 2002 and maintains its records. "I would like to see them keep track of what they've done. (A wheelchair) event is timed like other events in track. To award medals to athletes, the least they can do is keep track. Why deny the kids a measuring stick to see what they've been doing?"
Caswell's coach, Nicole Stewart, often has contacted the OSAA about the records.
"I think that's blatant discrimination," Stewart said. "How come (the OSAA will) list everybody's results but not wheelchair (records)? Secondly, why will the OSAA tell you one thing differently from what's on the guidelines?"
"We're almost seen as inhuman in their eyes," Caswell said. "I'm fighting so that younger kids had the opportunities I had."
The OSAA has guidelines for regular-season and conference meet directors who allow wheelchair competitors to race with runners on the same track at the same time. (To see the guidelines, visit www.osaa.org/track/wheelchair.pdf.) Caswell will get to compete in the 3,000, 1,500, and 800 at the Intermountain Conference Championships on his home track Friday and Saturday along with runners and in a 100 exhibition, but not for points, Pendleton head coach Mark Christensen said.
"I don't want people to see me and say he's out there because he doesn't want to be sitting at home," Caswell said. "I want people to see I have a varsity spot and I should be out there with everyone else, trying to help my team out."
This season Caswell scored in four events at a meet in Oregon City and at the Carnival of Speed in Milton-Freewater.
Hansen said wheelchair athletes will compete in the 100 and 800 at the state meet this year, based on the interest among wheelchair athletes in the state. One field event for those athletes usually is allowed, but Hansen said no competitor that he knows of has shown interest in competing in a field event.
"I think he puts in as much time as anybody else as far as being able to compete," Christensen said. "The problem is, we don't have whole piles of athletes who are like Brandon.
"Should he be out there (with runners at state)? I think so because he's proven in four years he can be on the same course with other guys and not have any problems. He's not going to cross into their lanes."
Stewart has asked if wheelchair athletes could be allowed to qualify for the state championships the same way "able-bodied athletes" do through district competition without any special treatment, but the OSAA has disallowed it.
"The OSAA in particular and the OSAA executive board philosophically believe the inclusion of wheelchair athletes fundamentally alters the competition," Garrett said. "Different states around the country have taken different positions. There is increased potential for injury to occur. Not everybody's as experienced as Brandon Caswell. Not everybody's an athlete like Brandon Caswell.
"(Stewart) is advocating for her athlete. I have no issue with that."
Caswell holds state records in the 100, 400, 800 and 1,500 and has been a member of the U.S. Paralympic team. He appeared on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" last year during a segment about Maryland athlete Tatyana McFadden, who won a right to race alongside runners in U.S. District Court.
According to wheelchair racing experts, non-wheelchair athletes would have the advantage in the 100 and 200 because it takes time for a wheelchair athlete to come up to speed. The 400 is the only event where times could be comparable, but in races greater than 400 meters the wheelchair athletes would be at an advantage because they can maintain a high level of speed.
In November, Caswell had to compete in the Washington State Wheelchair Cross Country Championships in Pasco to win his Oregon championship medal. Caswell beat the field.
"Our (state championship) course at Lane Community College, you don't run on grass, you run on bark chips, so it's not conducive to wheelchair competition," Welter said. "We're running our state championships on one day - eight of them. We couldn't fit it into our schedule. We have awards presentations in between championships, and the last race is at 3:30 p.m. (when it's not Daylight Savings Time)."
Even if another date and course were found for a wheelchair championship in Oregon, "We'd have to have another set of people to help conduct it," Welter also said.
"He gets better treatment in the state of Washington than in the state of Oregon," Joy Caswell said.
Christensen left it up to Stewart to communicate with the OSAA since she works with Brandon.
"My whole goal is that when Brandon gets done competing, his records get posted on the (OSAA) Web site and that he gets acknowleged for any records he gets at the state meet," Stewart said.
Joy Caswell said she would like to see changes made by the 2008 state meets; otherwise, she plans to take legal action against the OSAA on behalf of Oregon wheelchair athletes.
"As a coach, all I can do is keep writing letters saying, 'We really need to list these kids," Stewart said. "I cannot take legal action because personally, I have not been discriminated against.
"It really comes down to letting their kids be part of their high school team and saying they are important to be coached, score points and be able to compete with their team."
Garrett said the OSAA is "not there yet" when it comes to allowing wheelchair athletes to compete with others. "I can't tell you we're going to be there in five years, 10 years or 20 years," he added.
Said Christensen: "I want him to leave with a better taste knowing - no, he can't score in state - but he's come a long way in four years."