LAKE CONNEAUT – With sunny skies and a wind blowing through his hair, Lance Johnston followed the wake of the speedboat ahead of him on Monday, drifting left and right as the waters of Lake Conneaut splash all around him.
Waterskiing was something Johnston hadn’t done in about 30 years, but he was doing very well, with the line connecting him to the boat only having to be let go a few times before quickly restarting.
It was almost as if, for a moment, he hadn’t lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident eight years ago.
“It’s awesome,” Johnston said of the experience. “It makes you feel like normal again.”
Johnston, who is from Eighty Four, was taking part in the Three Rivers Adaptive Sports (TRAS) water sports clinic for the first time, which started Monday and ends Thursday at the Iroquois Boating and Fishing Club on the east side of Lake Conneaut. . The annual clinic makes special accommodations to allow people with disabilities to water ski, kayak and canoe on the lake.
Now in its 32nd year, the Adaptive Watersports Clinic is a well-known feature of the Conneaut Lake calendar. It was the second year the clinic had been held since the COVID-19 pandemic and, according to Barbi Baum, Chair of the Board of TRAS, the clinic saw an increase in attendance compared to last year.
“Our numbers are much better this year,” Baum said. “We didn’t have a convenient clinic in 2020 due to the pandemic, but in 2021 we had low attendance, but we had what we would call good attendance.”
On Monday alone, TRAS volunteers assisted 10 people with disabilities with waterskiing and other water activities. It’s an experience that Baum is happy to share.
When Baum was young, she frequented the waters of Lake Conneaut during the summers, especially enjoying the waterskiing outings. However, a car accident when she was 14 damaged her spinal cord, leaving her wheelchair tied up.
Fortunately, later in life, companies will start making equipment that allows people with disabilities to continue enjoying these water activities. Baum was quick to give them a chance.
“Once they started making the suitable gear, I wanted to try it out and get back on the water,” she said. “Once I tried, I wanted to give that opportunity to other people and it grew from there.”
Safety is the name of the game for the event, with organizers making sure every participant is able to keep their head above water before putting them on the lake. There are also volunteers on standby ready to step in and help anyone who may have fallen off their skis or kayak or canoe.
As each participant faces a different condition, volunteers also need to prepare different accommodations to ensure they can participate safely. In Johnston’s case, for example, he couldn’t necessarily do all the usual hand signals that water skiers typically use to signal their boat while holding on to the rope.
It’s a lot of work, but giving people with missing limbs, brain damage, or a litany of other conditions the chance to get out on skis or a boat is worth it.
“It’s very empowering for someone with a disability to get out and water ski or kayak like an able-bodied person,” Baum said. “Makes you feel good about yourself.”
Johnston certainly appreciates it. He felt nervous the first time he went out on skis during the clinic, not knowing what to expect. Afterwards, he was eager to get out some more and plans to come back in the years to come.
“Oh, absolutely, I’ll be back,” he said. “You can’t take me away now.”
It wasn’t just new people having fun on the lake. There were also several returning participants, such as Aliquippa’s John Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald, who has cerebral palsy, said he had been coming to the clinic for about six years. He remembers his first outing on skis, feeling “a little shaky”.
“After a while you get used to it and you understand how to maneuver,” he said.
For Fitzgerald, it brings a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.
“To be out there as a disabled person, you don’t think about it when you’re out there,” he said.
The clinic continues today and Thursday, from approximately 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. traspa.org.