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The heart of a champion

Hamilton wheelchair athlete helps keep sport in perspective

April 18, 2011

Menomonee Falls — Hamilton freshman Ben Meinzer completed the 100-meter race with little fanfare other than the encouragement of his teammates and the few spectators that braved the harsh winds and frigid temperatures of a mid-April evening in Wisconsin. After crossing the finish line, Meinzer retrieved his time and ventured back to his team's staging area to ready himself for his second race, the grueling 200 meter. He was just like every other athlete at the Menomonee Falls JV Open that day. The only difference - he accomplished all of this from a wheelchair.

Born with spina bifida, a condition in the womb in which the spine does not close properly, Meinzer has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth, but the freshman does not waste time feeling sorry for himself.

"I just love to get active, and be the best I can be and show people that being in a wheelchair isn't that different from being able to walk," he said as he prepared for his first race of the evening.

Meinzer has loved sports for a long time. Besides playing wheelchair soccer, he also bowls and plays wheelchair tennis, but participating on Hamilton's track and field team is his first venture into WIAA athletics.

On April 12, he defeated another wheelchair athlete from Milwaukee Vincent in a meet at Brookfield East High School, but if there is no one else to compete against, Meinzer races against the clock. At the April 14 meet, Meinzer sped his way to a 20.9 second 100-meter time.

"It's been fun," said Hamilton track and field coach Eric Murray. "He comes to practice every day and works his tail off. He just wants to compete. He just wants to be a part of something."

Teammates support him

Having Meinzer on the team has kept the sport in perspective for his Charger teammates.

"The team treats him great, and that's the expectation," Murray said. "Those boys get up every day, hop out of bed, go down and grab a bowl of cereal. Ben's never been able to experience that, and those kids realize how fortunate they are to be able to go out and run for a sport when Ben unfortunately has never been able to have that opportunity. … It just makes you appreciate what you've been given in terms of your health."

When the Chargers go to meets, Meinzer's teammates are there to help lift him and his racing chair onto the bus, but besides a little extra help now and then, Meinzer is just another guy on the team, his sense of humor and likability immediately obvious to any outside observer.

"He likes to joke around and stuff, but he still works really hard," said Hamilton junior and teammate Preston Voss. "It's easy to tell that he's in it to give it his best."

Preston and his teammates said Meinzer serves as an inspiration to the team.

"He's an awesome competitor," remarked Chaise Blackburn, a freshman on the team. "He's always willing to give 100 percent, no matter what. He's a big part (of the team). A wheelchair means nothing to him. … When we work out at Hamilton, he's right there with us. There's no special treatment for him. He's not alone on the track. He's with us competing just the way we would."

His mother agrees.

"He just feels like he's one of the team," Shelly Meinzer said. "That was his goal, to be part of a team, and they don't treat him any different."

Inspiration to family

Watching Meinzer compete is something his family could only hope to experience when they learned of his condition at birth. Like the Charger track team, his older brother, Patrick, a Marine on the verge of a deployment to Afghanistan, and his sister, Ashley, both treat him like any other kid, but they are always quick to defend him if anyone gives him a difficult time.

"When we heard before I delivered Ben, how bad it would be, that he'd probably never walk and never get around, it changed our lives," his mother recalled. "He's determined to do whatever he can. He doesn't let anything slow him down, and he's just an inspiration to our family."

When Meinzer first visited Hamilton High School and learned that the WIAA would offer wheelchair track competition for the first time, he jumped on the opportunity despite some initial hesitation.

"He was kind of nervous to go out, being the only kid, but he's got a great positive spirit," Shelly Meinzer said.

She and Meinzer's father, Brad, could not be prouder of the courage their son displays. "He's just really a great kid. He flies. It is unbelievable how fast he goes."

In true Ben Meinzer fighting spirit, he said, "My biggest motto that I have is 'never give up'. I mean, at the beginning it was hard, but you've just got to push yourself to do it. You can't just say, 'Oh this is hard, I can't do it.' You've got to work for stuff."

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