Leading the Way

SPORTS `N SPOKES Junior Athlete of the Year Kayla Bolnick got a slow start in adaptive sports, but has worked her way to the top of the podium and there’s no end in sight

By Christopher Di Virgilio

The first time Kayla Bolnick tried wheelchair racing, she flipped backwards in her track chair and swore it would be the last time she’d ever do that sport. Seven years later, after much trial and error, she’s become a regular competitor in track, swimming and basketball.

Bolnick’s résumé of athletic achievements may not read like a sports almanac, but that didn’t keep her from landing the 2016 SPORTS ’N SPOKES (S’NS) Junior Athlete of the Year award at July’s Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals in Middleton, Wis.

The 15-year-old Oregon resident shed tears of joy when she learned she’d won the S’NS Junior Athlete of the Year award.

“I’m so excited to have been chosen as junior athlete of the year,” Bolnick says. “When my mom told me, I was in tears. I felt so great that others see my accomplishments and felt moved to nominate me. I know three people that nominated me, and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get it, there are so many people that are better than me, there’s no way I’ll be selected.’”

During the Junior Nationals closing ceremonies, Bolnick was presented with an engraved silver platter, a certificate for a new wheelchair courtesy of Box Wheelchairs and a complimentary subscription to S’NS.

S’NS co-founders Cliff and Nancy Crase created the Junior Athlete of the Year award in 1986 because they wanted to recognize the efforts of young competitors. The Crases based the honor on Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Jack Gerhardt Award for adult athletes.

Earning Her Placements

The Crases had young athletes like Bolnick in mind when they came up with the idea for the junior athlete award. She’s been having a very recognizable year with a collection of “firsts” leading up to Junior Nationals.

Bolnick has competed in multiple local track events, struggled through completing a 10-mile race, ran a couple of 5Ks and most recently earned personal bests in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter track events at July’s Angel City Games in Los Angeles, her first sanctioned competition ahead of Junior Nationals. 

Reflecting on the past year, Bolnick says her experience in Los Angeles was monumental in helping her hone her swimming skills.

“One of my most favorite days was at the Angel City Games swim clinic when I met Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson,” she says. “I was working with a coach who didn’t quite know how to help me compensate for not using my legs when Rudy offered to help. He came over and explained what I should try. And lo and behold, my breaststroke felt so much better. It was great to work with someone who gets it and that could
help me improve.”

Bolnick put her new swimming skills to use during Junior Nationals, finishing first in the S7/U16 50-yard freestyle with a time of 51.42 seconds, first in the 50-yard breaststroke in 1 minute, 54.20 seconds and first in the 100-yard freestyle in 2:04.35. 

“I liked Junior Nationals mostly because I’m with other athletes in the same classification as me,” Bolnick says. “That allows me to compare times with kids like me and set goals for myself. I enjoy the feeling of going against them and not have to compete against able-bodied athletes, where I always come in last place. Here, I feel like my placements are earned. I like that.”

A Game-Changer

Like many before her, Bolnick’s journey was met with certain challenges that often left her feeling isolated and different.

Born with spina bifida, Bolnick has endured more than 20 surgeries over the course of her life, had to walk with hip-knee-ankle-foot orthoses and deal with the ignorance and intolerance of her peers who didn’t quite understand her disability.

At a young age, Bolnick’s parents, Brandi and Eric, stepped in and encouraged her to take part in adaptive sports. But it wasn’t love at first sight, as Bolnick struggled to find her place and suffered many failures and frustrations along the path to success.

“My parents made a choice to keep me active after doctors advised of weight issues for wheelchair patients,” Bolnick says. “They put me in wheelchair basketball with coach Rick [Tirambulo] from Rancho [Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif.], where I would just play in the chair and toss a small basketball around. It wasn’t very fun.”

A move from California to Oregon a few years later opened up new opportunities for Bolnick, and with it, hope of self-discovery in wheelchair sports that ultimately gave her the confidence to conquer nearly any challenge.

That move was a game-changer for Bolnick as she discovered the folks at Camp Attitude in Foster, Ore., and was instantly welcomed into the community of other families and kids with spina bifida and spinal-cord injuries. Suddenly, she felt a sense of belonging and was soon mentoring younger kids.

“Being a good example, a friend or just being there to help out is all part of being a good leader,” Bolnick says. “My favorite part of being a mentor is seeing them [younger kids] learn something new that I helped with. I feel good inside knowing I had an effect on them.”

Proving Them Wrong

Bolnick still faces challenges but tackles them head-on with charm, grace and a warm smile. Despite her resilience, one thing still troubles her.

“I think kids are more curious about people with disabilities and, for the most part, it’s cute and understandable,” says Bolnick, who can be seen in a video interview on sportsnspokes.com. “It’s the adults I have the most trouble with. They stare and whisper mostly. Some even point. I feel like, why not just ask me questions? I don’t mind. I hate people that stare at me. It drives me nuts.”

Bolnick hopes to spend the coming year advocating for other kids like her and ensure that everyone is included in sports at their schools. But most importantly, she hopes to do more to educate the general public to be more accepting and encouraging of people with disabilities.

“People tell me ‘no’ all the time,” Bolnick says. “I prove them wrong. I enjoy helping others learn about sports. I’d like to do more with that. I don’t notice that I’m a mentor. I just do it. I love helping. I love seeing them [others] succeed and do good in their sport.”

Bolnick hopes to attend the University of Illinois after high school to study nursing and take advantage of the Fighting Illini’s reputation for wheelchair sports programs.

For inspiration, Bolnick looks up to Paralympians Tatyana McFadden and Yen Hoang. 

“She (Yen) shows me so much that I can do on my own, gives me pointers and is my mentor,” Bolnick says. “And Tatyana … I want to be her. I just love what she does. I want to be the one to take away her title. I’d love to challenge her, but I’m not even close yet.” 

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