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Paralysis could not douse Mike Ward's competitive fire

Ward's accomplishments, showing others they can continue to play sports has the native Oklahoman headed into the Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA Hall of Fame.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 10, 2012

They formed a wheelchair basketball team.

That was in 1974, a time when attitudes about the disabled were still raw in this country. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was still more than a decade away, and it was common for people to think nothing of using hurtful terms such as cripple.

So, the idea of a wheelchair basketball team was lost on some people.

Even the fiancé of the guy who agreed to coach the team struggled to wrap her mind around it.

“Why would anyone want to play wheelchair basketball?” she asked. “Why do these guys want to play? Why?”

She failed to understand that their accidents hadn't extinguished their competitive fire.

“It had nothing to do with showing the world anything,” Ward said. “It's internal — ‘I want to compete.' Of course, once you're able to prove to yourself that you can do these things, then you can do anything.”

Ward decided to try other sports. Powerlifting. Javelin. Discus. Shot put. He ultimately made two Paralympic teams, in 1988 and 1992, and competed in events across the country and around the world.

Along the way, he met people who were once like him. They suddenly found themselves disabled, and they needed help. They needed motivation.

That prompted Ward to help found Oklahomans for Independent Living in 1985. The nonprofit organization works to assist and empower the disabled in and around McAlester, where Ward lives.

It has a staff of 10, a reach of eight counties and an impact on hundreds.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that Ward had to first help himself. He had to break free of the comfort of his apartment. He had to shake off society's belief that his wheelchair limited his life. He had to start the grueling process that one day allowed him to walk again with the help of leg braces.

He needed a strong will and an internal drive, needed them every day since his accident.

Those fires were stoked by wheelchair sports.

“Once you prove to yourself that you can do stuff athletically,” Ward said, “there's nothing that's going to hold you back.”

Nowadays, Ward splits time between Oklahomans for Independent Living and his audiology practice in McAlester. He's been married for 32 years, has two grown children and is also a grandfather.

He's definitely not standing still.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125 or at You can also like her at, follow her at or view her personality page at

by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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