On a dock overlooking a private lake on the outskirts of Chico, coaches from the Ability First Sports camp are teaching students adaptive water skiing. This camp is hosted at Chico State for a week every summer, and students with physical disabilities come from across the western United States to learn a number of wheelchair sports. There’s tennis, skateboarding, rugby and basketball practice.
Many of camp’s coaches are world-class athletes. For example, Matthew Oberholtz is a former world champion and coach for the U.S. Disabled Water Ski Team. Another one of the coaches, Bill Bowness, has set world records. He’s the first wheelchair athlete to enter the USA Water Ski Hall of Fame. Altogether, there are four current or former world champions at this practice session alone.
It’s no wonder that a number of camp graduates have gone on to become professional athletes. Kerri Vanderbom grew up in Gridley and went to the summer camp when she was 12 years old. Now she’s one of the camp’s coaches.
“It was because of this camp I got involved in waterskiing, and at the age of 17 really started,(and) was able to take part in my first competition and basically from that point I’ve been competing since,” she said.
Ability First Sports camp is about much more than competition though. Matthew Oberholtz hopes that if he can show the campers what they can do on the water, they’ll realize what else they are capable of in life.
“We teach them those independence skills,” he said. “You can do this, you can drive, you can travel, you can waterski, you can go to a skate park. You can be a self-advocate so to speak. You speak up for yourself.”
At Chico State, another group of campers are learning how to play tennis. Suchitra Goracke is taking a water break during practice and tells me what she loves most about the camp.
“The energy and the drive to work hard. And everybody is there to support you and see you succeed,” she said.
All that support and hard work has paid off. When Goracke gets back on the tennis court, it’s obvious she has a talent for the sport. She slams the ball over the net and scores the winning point for her team. Goracke’s favorite sport at camp though, is water skiing. She said she loves the freedom of being out on the water.
“You just be yourself and people don’t judge you for who you are,” Goracke said.
The last full day of camp is Friday. There will be a taco truck dinner and then a dance. The next morning, the campers will pack their bags and take what they’ve learned this week back home.