Wheelchair athlete sues MSHSL over track and field participation

1:47 PM, Dec 22, 2011   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS -- A Waterville-Elysian-Morristown High School wheelchair athlete has sued the Minnesota State High School League saying she should have the right to compete alongside runners.

On Dec. 8, the attorneys for Rose Hollermann, a 15-year-old sophomore, filed the lawsuit in Minnesota's Fourth Judicial District. The case against the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) alleges discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

For Hollermann, it's a simple case of fairness.

"I just think it's important for everyone to be treated equally and to have the same opportunities," said Hollermann, who was partially paralyzed in a 2001 car accident.

But MSHSL officials maintain they've made significant changes in response to Hollermann's concerns. In 2011, the league added three wheelchair division events to state track and field competitions. In 2012, they'll add an additional three wheelchair division events.

League officials say they've so far denied the request for wheelchair athletes to race alongside runners out of safety concerns for all of the athletes.

"If you were to put an able-bodied runner on the track with an athlete who is in a wheelchair who is learning and have them be able to maneuver amongst one another, the chances of a collision taking place while the athlete is in stride and the wheelchair division athlete is maneuvering their chair is great," said MSHSL Associate Director Jody Redman.

Redman added that the league also disagrees with pitting the two athletes against each other for competitive reasons.

"The wheelchair athlete in a race that is 800 meters or shorter is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. When you look at events that are over 800 meters, they're going to be at a distinct advantage because of the way the chair works," Redman said.

Hollermann said she agrees that the two types of athletes should not be in a direct competition, but she maintains that wheelchair athletes should be allowed to score some points for their team.

Meantime, Hollermann's lawyer - Justin Page with the Minnesota Disability Law Center - suggests the case hinges on Hollermann's abilities. Page said the lawsuit is solely requesting Hollermann's participation in track and field events. Hollermann is a known world-class athlete and member of the 2011 U.S. Women's Basketball team that won a gold medal in the Para Pan American Games. She is also trying out for the U.S. Women's Para Olympic basketball team in January. In 2011, Hollermann won the state track and field championships in the 1600 meter and 800 meter wheelchair division races.

But league officials maintain that they are not allowed to create policy or regulations on behalf of an individual student.

League officials say the league's board will consider Hollermann's latest request to compete alongside runners at its February board meeting. They're also expecting to receive recommendations from the league's sports medicine advisory committee.

According to the MSHSL, only Maryland allows mixed-race competitions at the official state level. Hollermann's attorneys say several states allow simultaneous competitions between runners and wheelchair athletes.

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