LEMONT – Jeff Yackley initially balked at the idea of playing wheelchair sports.
Two years later, he is thrilled to be part of them.
The Lemont man, 50 and a member of the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association, was selected by the National Wheelchair Softball Association to represent Team USA on July 2 and 3 at the 2016 Japanese National Championship Tournament in Sapporo, Japan.
This is the first time the United States fielded a national softball team and competed as an international guest, said Keith Wallace, executive director of the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association, chairman of the International Wheelchair Softball Association and softball coach for the USA Wheelchair Softball Association.
“This was a dream I’d been working on for 10 years,” Wallace said.
Yackley, director of golf for The Links at Carillon in Plainfield, said he was excited to be chosen for Team USA.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for me,” he said.
Yackley was chosen as one of two pitchers on the 16-member team. Other team members came from Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Tennessee, Wallace said.
In Japan, Team USA won the world cup, Yackley said. In addition, Yackley was named one of the top 10 wheelchair players in the world. Last year – Yackley’s first year playing wheelchair softball – he was named Rookie of the Year during the world series of wheelchair softball in Mississippi.
However, Yackley might never have played if he and Wallace hadn’t attended the same mission trip in Africa four years ago and roomed together. Wallace noticed Yackley’s leg brace and suggested wheelchair sports.
But it took Yackley about a year to warm up to the idea.
“The last thing I wanted to do was drive up to the basketball court, jump out of my car, run into the gym, and sit in the chair and play,” Yackley said.
With a history of playing competitively in a variety of sports, Yackley wondered how other players might react when they realized he didn’t continually require a wheelchair.
A week before Yackley’s’s 21st birthday, he and Julianne Yackley, who is now his wife, were riding his motorcycle down Route 45 in Frankfort when another driver hit him head on, Yackley said.
He suffered several breaks, but the primary injury was some permanent nerve damage in his left leg, resulting in foot drop. Yackley can use his leg if it’s in a brace and he continued to play sports well into his 40s, until family responsibilities for him and the other players curtailed opportunities for competitive play.
But he did miss it – the play and the players he met. When he decided to give wheelchair basketball a try in 2014, before taking up wheelchair softball a year later, Yackley realized it was a different sport altogether.
“It’s played differently than able-bodied basketball: how to use the chair, how to position yourself. The fact that someone else is faster and more mobile in the chair makes it tougher for someone new to stop them or get around them,” Yackley said. “It took me a season to learn the basics of the game. I was a little disappointed. I was used to being reasonably good at most things.”
Yackley said he spent that first year working on his skills, during practice and his own time.
“I’d go out a couple days a week just to be in the chair and push it around,” Yackley said. “I’d go to the basketball court during the off-season to work on dribbling and developing different maneuvers and movements with the chair to feel comfortable.”
The disabilities Yackley sees are as varied as the players. Some have comparatively simple injuries while others are quadriplegics or may be missing limbs, Yackley said. Some use a wheelchair full time; others take a break, walk around and sit back in the chair, he said.
Being able-bodied has no advantage due to the way the sports are played, Yackley said, except perhaps for those athletes with some core and upper body strength, such as Yackley has. Yackley would like to see the Olympics include adaptive sports in its events.
But first things first.
“Our goal is to start more teams and get more countries involved,” Yackley said.
For more information about the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association, visit www.LWSRA.org.
For more information about the National Wheelchair Softball Association, visit www.wheelchairsoftball.org.