If you want to learn anything about wheelchair athlete and Nicholasville native Aerelle Jones, the best place to start is by looking at her racing chair.
Nicknamed “Franken-chair” by her family, it has been a work in progress from the beginning, and the adjustments are obvious.
For example, Jones started her racing career sitting up on a seat made of three couch cushions, but now rides on a hybrid stand constructed from a school bus door, a steel rod and a Schwinn ergonomic bicycle seat.
The chair is a direct reflection of the family’s learn-as-you-go introduction to wheelchair athletics. It’d probably be hard to find another chair like it at any competition Jones has been part of, but that’s perfect because there usually isn’t anyone like her, either.
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Jones, 17, has been involved in wheelchair racing for 3 1/2 years and has trained and learned largely on her own.
That hasn’t slowed her down. In her first year participating in wheelchair competitions on a track, she came away with five gold medals and one silver at the Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals in Middleton, Wis., two weeks ago.
“I was thrilled. My goal for this year was to make Junior Nationals. And I made it and beat a lot of the other people that were there,” Jones said. “So I surpassed even what I was expecting of myself. And I’m just thrilled to be able to be here.”
Jones was born with a bone disorder called Klippel-Feil IV which involves malformations in her vertebrae and back. She has been able to walk since a young age with the help of braces and crutches and lives comfortably with those challenges. “I just kind of lived my life, and I didn’t really think of myself having a disability,” Jones said.
Aerelle, who is homeschooled by her mother, Della, and entering her senior year, was always pushed by her parents to stay active even with her circumstances. And wheelchair racing gave her an avenue to do that.
“You’re counting on the healthy part of your body more than it was intended,” Aerelle’s father, Raymond, said. “To extend the quality of your life for years to come, staying active is extremely important.”
In Adaptive Sports we don’t level the finish line, because that’s not competition. We level the starting line so that within disabilities, people of like ability are on the same starting line together.
Adaptive Sports was perfect in Jones’ case, combining physical activity with her competitive nature. Adaptive Sports modify sports to account for people’s disabilities while still challenging their abilities. Sports are not only adapted for those in wheelchairs but for the blind, amputees or those with intellectual impairments.
“In Adaptive Sports we don’t level the finish line, because that’s not competition,” Raymond Jones said. “We level the starting line so that, within disabilities, people of like ability are on the same starting line together.”
Aerelle’s first foray into the world of wheelchair racing was the Driveway to 5K training program hosted by the Jessamine County Public Library. Neither event coordinator Les Lehman or Jones knew what they were getting into when she arrived the first day.
“I came in and she looked at me and was like, ‘Good for you, but I don’t really know how to help wheelchair people,’” Aerelle said.
Jones continued figuring it out as she went, claiming she “had to start somewhere,” and the learning curve has gotten steeper ever since.
Her first revelation was that she needed to replace her day-to-day wheelchair with a racing chair. The family acquired on Craigslist what became “Franken-chair” and began looking into Adaptive Sports.
Outsiders no more
During the early stages, the family gathered much of what they learned from articles and videos online which led to interesting reactions from racers when they arrived at events.
Afterward, though, rival competitors and coaches were always helpful in explaining ways Aerelle could improve her chair and her technique. Being around those experienced in the sport helped the family start to ask the right questions and, in turn, people pointed them in new directions for information.
One of the places their questioning led them to was the University of Illinois. As one of three colleges in the United States with a wheelchair track team, a trip to Champaign, Ill., turned out to be huge for Aerelle’s devlopment and is also a place that she is considering for college, along with Penn State, another one of the three.
It also helped when her father earned his official coaching certification, making him the only known certified parasport track and field coach in Kentucky.
“His coaching was huge. It opened up more worlds,” Aerelle said. “It opened up more ideas that we didn’t know. And it was basic skills just with track and how to do that.”
Slowly Aerelle and her family no longer felt like outsiders and began to see results from their hard work.
Using the Bluegrass 10,000 as a measuring stick, Aerelle has seen improvement each year. In her first year in the event in 2013, she covered the course in 44 minutes, 16 seconds, just minutes shy of the then-pushchair record of 42:09. She broke the record the next year with a 39:49 and has bested herself in each of the last two years, going in 36:16 on the Fourth of July this year.
With the help of equipment and travel grants made available to disabled athletes — something else they learned about through talking with other athletes — Jones was also able to participate in track events for the first time this year.
In her first meet, the Desert Challenge Games in Arizona, she raced against the best athletes the sport had to offer and set personal bests in five of the six events in which she participated.
“I learned a very important lesson as coach,” Raymond Jones said. “If I want Aerelle to go faster all I have to do is put someone just ahead of her and she will push harder.”
That event also allowed her to qualify for the Junior Nationals.
Big changes ahead
Now heading into her offseason, both Aerelle and her chair will be undergoing some operations. Aerelle will have a procedure done that fuses vertebrae in her neck while her father works on her chair under the guidance of U.S. Paralympic Track and Field National Team head coach Teresa Skinner. And Aerelle’s unofficial race team has an added goal of expanding after purchasing another racing chair this year.
“Our goal is with all that learning and that knowledge we were able to gain, how do we pull someone else into doing this after 3 1/2 years of doing this,” Aerelle Jones said. “Now that we have the knowledge, we can be a launching point for someone else so they can start at a much higher level.”
The Adaptive Sports community has always tried to give back and help others, and Jones’ path shows that. Now they hope to possibly change another person's life.
“If someone really wants to get into this, we have another chair for them to try. It will probably be a little bit of a Franken-chair, but it’s OK. This is how you get started,” Raymond Jones said. “The whole point of Adaptive Sports is that it is adaptive. So we’ve learned and are learning how to adapt.”
Anyone looking for information pertaining to wheelchair racing or any other Adaptive Sport may contact Raymond Jones at (859) 221-4269.