THE INCREDIBLE YOUNG MAN
ON THE FLYING RINGS

Published in BOYS' LIFE December 1968

By JACK MILES 

Even cerebral palsy can’t keep a good man down.


As acting couch of the Florida State University gymnastic team, I knew I had a rough year ahead. For this reason, and because I wanted the new team members to meet the regular squad, I called a meeting an hour before the first-day workout.

I was proud of these young men for, besidcs being good athletes, they were good students.

It wasn’t a typical coach-athlete situa­tion. 1 was still a competitive gymnast, and only a year earlier, most of the fellows the room were my teammates,

I wasn’t worried about the boys not giving me professional respect: They were a serious minded group united in the common desire to win. Also, I was kind of sure of myself. Although many of the boys called me “Little Miles” (because I was short with a sort of Bing Crosby look), I knew they would listen to what I had to say, since I had won 68 gold medals and four national titles, including the top All-Around title.

“I’ve met each of you,” I opened, “but since you will rely on each other’s assistance for safety, 1 want each of you to introduce yourself by telling your name, where you’re from, your highest title won, and your best trick.”

As the introductions snaked through the room, national and Olympic titles pilcd up. Best tricks ran the gamut from a “handstand on the rings” to a “double back somersault on the trampoline.”

Then one well-built young man began to stand —and everyone watched quietly. He leaned on his chair and pushed him-self erect. His hands shook; his head twitched slightly. I could see the looks of apprehension in the eyes of the gymnasts as he held onto the chair to steady him­self

His words came slowly and deliberate­ly. “My name is Wayne Thompson, I’m from West Palm Beach, and my best trick is standing still.”

Almost immediately everyone relaxed and laughed with him. With that one statement this 21-year-old gymnast showed that he could joke about a physi­cal handicap.

Wayne had cerebral palsy!

I had met Wayne a few months before. It was the beginning of summer school and I was checking the fall competition schedule when I happened to glance through the window that separated my office from the gym. I could see a lone figure moving in and out of the light that beamed from my office into the un­lighted gym. He had an awkward walk, with a sort of pigeon-toed look. Then he dragged a heavy wooden chair under the rings, he carefully stood on the chair and, with great difficulty, used his left hand to help his right hand grasp one ring. Grabbing the other ring and kick­ing the chair out from under him, he lowered to a hanging position and began to raise his legs up and through his arms.

I watched him do a back lever—a trick performed by advanced gymnasts in which the body is held straight out in back, parallel to the floor. I thought to myself, That’s pretty good, the way he got on the rings. I never thought he’d be able to do that. I walked into the gym, switched on the lights and hollered, “Hey, you’d better use the lights if you’re going to work out.”

He dropped from the rings, walked over and introduced himself. As he shook my hand, I noticed that his right hand was affected by palsy and slow to open. But his grip was strong and his hands heavily calloused, as are all gym­nasts’ hands.

He explained that, while he had learned to do many tricks hanging below Ihe rings, he could not perform above them because he hadn’t been able to do the basic move, a “muscle-up” that would get him above the rings.

I showed him the special grip that was needed, he tried it and was elated to find himself, for the first time, above the rings, he dropped to his feet and said he never thought he’d get that stunt because he had cerebral palsy. I suggested that he stop by my office after his shower. As he left the gym, I recalled where I had seen his name: on the scholarship list for the fall gym team left by my pred­ecessor.

With his thumbs stuck in his pants pockets and holding on tightly so that his extra movements might not be detected, Wayne walked slowly into my office. Neatly dressed and groomed, he leaned back in a chair as if we had been friends always. Wayne’s Open manner prompted me to confess that even though I had read a little about cerebral palsy, I really didn’t know much about it.

He explained that at birth the um­bilical cord had twisted around his neck, cutting off the oxygen and blood sup­plies to his brain, thereby killing some of the cells which control smooth body movements. As a result, thousands of extra nerve impulses are sent to his muscles causing them to shake. He has to work hard to control these movements and burns up a lot of energy in the con­tinual fight for muscular control.

Wayne is classified as “athetoid,” which means “shakes and wiggles,” as opposed to “spastic,” which means “impaired antagonistic muscle control.” (Every muscle has an antagonistic mus­cle, one which pulls against it—sort of fighting it in a tug-of-war, limiting its action and keeping movements smooth. When one of the antagonistic muscles is impaired, the person is subject to short violent movements which he can’t con­trol.) Anyway, Wayne isn’t spastic but he does have the athetoid form of cere­bral palsy, which causes him muscular in-coordination and speech difficulty. However, he considers cerebral palsy more of a nuisance than a handicap.

He spoke slowly, to be sure I under­stood him fully, as he hesitantly asked if I thought he could become a competitive gymnast. I told him about how, when I wanted to be an Olympian, I had searched desperately for every thread of encouragement.

“Wayne,” I said, “I don’t know what our limitations arc; as a matter of fact, I don’t think anyone does. You know we only use a small part of our physical capacity, and even less of our mental. Why, we don’t even use all the air in our lungs. Nature’s given us a lot of extra stuff. Maybe somehow we can use this reserve when we need it.

“We’ll start with the basic stunts some you might be able to do, others you won’t. It usually takes ten years of practice to become a champion gymnast, so we better get going right away. You be here tomorrow afternoon!”

And so we met the next afternoon and all the afternoons to follow until the fall term began. There were several amputees and polio victims also competing in gym­nastics. And though, in their earlier training sessions they suffered more than those not so afflicted, their handicaps later became an aid due to the great advantage of lighter lower extremities. There are several such champions in the books. However, we found Wayne’s affliction was always to be a “nuisance.”

Every workout session uncovered new problems He couldn’t open and close his right hand quickly, because it was stiff and slow to respond Therefore, Wayne was forced to center most of his interest on the rings, where, once he had a handhold, it wasn’t necessary to make quick releases and grabs.

Gymnasts are also required to maintain good form keeping their legs straight and their toes “pointed” during the execution of their routines.

This was difficult for Wayne, whose feet would tremble from exertion when he was concentrating on an acrobatic movement However, with painstaking practice he conquered the problem by crossing his feet slightly, pressing them against each other and letting one foot help the other.

If you participate in an individual sport like tennis, golf or gymnastics, you stand alone without teammates to help hide your mistakes. If you attempt a movement and fail over and over, your maturity--or lack of it—stands bare for alt to see. Some respond by pounding the equipment, others sulk, while others, in a slight stupor, push themselves until they drop from exhaustion. I was curious to see how Wayne would react,

But he never showed any signs of frustration. If he ever felt failure he must have buried it deeply. His eagerness to learn seemed boundless, and his fervor was contagious, interestingly, I noticed, many gymnasts preferred Wayne’s evalu­ation of a trick they were trying to master, above the evaluations of other gymnasts in the group.

I never once saw him slip from the apparatus, even on those days when fall­ing seemed contagious. Wayne had his own rules. He, like a true champion, didn’t compete with others. He competed with himself and perfection.

Wayne had a wonderful sense of humor. He constantly made fun of his “wiggles,” as he called them. Once he said, “Elvis Presley imitates what I do naturally and gets paid for it. I wish I’d beat him to it.”

An incident I remember took place in around to Wayne, when he accidentally kicked her chair, and said harshly, “What’s with you, bud? You spastic or something?” Wayne simply said, “Yes, I am. I have cerebral palsy. I hope you don’t mind.” The girl was certainly embarrassed, but he took pity on her later and they became good friends.

Another girl avoided him like the plague because she didn’t know what to say to handicapped persons without offending them. 1 could tell she was squeamish about CP, so he walked up to her one day and said, “Hi! I have cerebral palsy; which often results in strange things happening. Did you see my left arm fly by a few minutes ago? I’ve been looking all over for it.” She realized he was teasing her and they laughed together.

I happened to mention that I had had a Course in popular dancing and Wayne asked if would teach him how. “Sure,” I said. So he met me at the motel where I worked nights to earn a few extra bucks. It was a strange sight. There we were, two grown men dancing in the brightly lit, glass-enclosed lobby of the motel late at night. Whenever a lodger would come up we would pretend we were looking for some lost article and tried not to look like two guys doing the cha-cha together. One evening the night clerk of the motel across the street called me on the phone and said, “I give up! I’ve been watching you guys for two nights. What the heck are you doing—trying to straighten out a wrinkled rug or something?”

One day Inoticed that Wayne was unnaturally sul­len; the spark that had lit the gym for those many months was gone. I suggested that we have dinner together after workout. We entered a restaurant and Wayne chose a corner table, explaining that he felt uncomfortable if people watched him eat. He asked the waitress if she would cut up his food and sugar his tea. (He had more difficulty picking up a fork than driving a car.) His resourcefulness was fascinating. He showed me how to stir iced tea by blowing bubbles through a straw in­stead of using the unwieldy spoon. Little things that most of us take for granted were a major effort, but he managed to eat smoothly by concen­trating on his every move.

After diner, I told Wayne I knew something was bothering him. He admitted two problems. First, he had hit a plateau and wasn’t progressing in his gymnastics. His second problem was more important and could lead to disaster. His academic counselor was un­knowingly causing great damage to Wayne’s drive to succeed. The counselor’, who had special training with the handicapped, was giving Wayne the standard patter——which is generally considered the best advice for the handicapped or impaired: to realize they will never be ‘normal’ and must face the reality of their impairment.

In most cases, the counselor would have been right. But not with Wayne. He was not as severely handicapped as most.

I had to relax a minute before I could tell Wayne how I felt. Here I had been saying, “Go! Go!” and the coun­selor had been saying, “Stop! Stop!” and Wayne was caught in the middle.

I blurted out, “Wayne, how the devil does this guy expect you to get ahead if you have to think down all the time. You’re not stupid! You know you have a lot to conquer and some things you can’t conquer. So how does that make you so different from others? A lot of ‘normal’ people have emotional prob­lems and physical illnesses that make them far more handicapped than you.”

Wayne was smiling and I thought he was ignoring what I was saying and enjoying my emotional display. Then he said that he felt as I did, but he had to know someone else felt the same way.

As for the plateau he had been on, it was my turn to smile. It’s a common problem. He was at a stage that all gymnasts face: passing from the elementary tricks to the more difficult ones, which are harder to learn and take more lime and effort. He didn’t know that everybody would have dif­ficulty at that stage, and it wasn’t be­cause he had CP. From that day on the problem of determining if the lack of progress was due to normal learning stages or due to CP was a point we had to discuss frequently.

Many times we forgot the outside world when we stayed late at night with the only sound being made by us and the huge wall clock, its clicks echoing throughout the gym. At other times the gym was full of flying, swinging bodies accompanied by the sound of hot hands squeaking on the high bar; the slapping thump of the trampoline as a rebounder flipped back into the air; and the dull thud of heels hitting the mats when a gymnast landed after somersaulting to a stand.

I watched Wayne’s arms grow strong­er as developing muscles pushed his veins and fiber into prominence cov­ered by only a thin layer of fat-free skin. Whenever he would grab my arm for support after he had somersaulted from the rings, I could feet the power of his hand. I was “spotting him”—-­catching him in case he should fall. I enjoyed working out myself, so we took turns “spotting” each other. I always felt safe with Wayne spotting me. We worked together a lot, and I learned much about this amazing man.

At the age of two, an eminent doc­tor told his parents, “This child was brain injured and nothing can be done for him.” At that time very little was known about CP. Cerebral palsy, polio and other physical handicaps were just coining out in the open. Wayne’s par­ents were shocked but refused to give up. They worked hard and long, teach­ing him to walk and talk. Determined that her child would not see her fear, his mother pretended not to notice as he unsteadily mastered stair climbing. Fearful but brave, she couldn’t watch as he learned to swim, lift weights, drive a ear and ride a motorcycle. Why, he even learned to walk a tight­rope!

He had his own ideas about physical therapy and overcame his earlier speaking difficulty by continual practice with a tape recorder, Although he couldn’t write, he managed class work by bor­rowing notes and, when taking tests, using a typewriter.

Although popular in high school, young Wayne was like many boys his age—shy around girls. However, at Florida State, he overcame this and was often seen dating some of the most popular girls on campus. He didn’t make any campus fraternity, and that hurt him—but not for long.

He became a living legend, a legend that began when he stepped from his trusty chair, grabbed the rings and moved through the air supported by strong muscles and equally strong de­termination. He became Wayne Thomp­son, the gymnast with cerebral palsy.

It’s almost anticlimactic to say it, but —yes—he did become a competitive gymnast, and—yes—he did win titles.

After graduation, he worked as a counselor for the mentally retarded. Now, in his spare time, he continues to work with budding gymnasts and other athletes, handicapped and non-handi­capped, helping them to better their per­formances. He’s also working on his doctorate.

In reflection, I recall most vividly the afternoon Wayne sat in my office and read my motto, which was hanging on the wall. It read, “The best place to look for a helping hand is at the end of your right arm.” He turned to me and held out his right hand to show it was shaking from CP. Then he said, ‘It’ll do, as long as I have this one to help it,” and he held tip his left hand.

And it did “do”! For when he stood with his teammates, waiting for their Championship trophy, he smiled to me. He knew I could detect his palsied movements, but to everyone else he was performing his best trick—standing proudly “still.”