Accessible adventures

Cancer survivor Eric Gray helps the disabled scale new heights

Accessible adventures

Photo by: Peter Frey

On a busy Saturday at the nation’s largest indoor climbing center, in Atlanta, hundreds of preschoolers, kids, teens and adults swing and pull themselves up walls reaching 25 to 60 feet high. When they hit the ground again, some cheer and high-five, while others receive words of encouragement from friends, instructors and coaches.

Eric Gray (BSEd ’04) wants to open up the world of adventurous sports to individuals who don’t have use of their hands or feet.

His Atlanta-based non-profit organization, Catalyst Sports, is trying to eliminate physical and financial barriers that keep people with a loss of function from attempting climbing and other recreational activities.

“It is a really neat opportunity to show people that there aren’t any limitations,” Gray says. “No matter who you are, we can get you up the wall.”

In March 2013, Catalyst offered its first adaptive climbing clinic at Atlanta’s Stone Summit, using specialized harnesses, pulleys and other equipment to help kids and adults reach new heights. About 250 people and 70 climbers attended the first clinic; the next free clinic takes place this month in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It’s important for people to see how we can empower them to do things they never thought they could,” says Gray, who earlier that day completed Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life SuperHero Sprint (he was among a group of Batman runners).

Gray was 10 when he was hit in the right eye by a soccer ball, and the unusual swelling resulted in doctors diagnosing him with cancer in that eye. He underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries in Atlanta to beat the cancer, but the treatments destroyed tear-producing glands and produced scar tissue. Surgeries failed to repair his right eyelid, and his eye was removed in 2012, turning Gray into “a permanent pirate,” as he says.

Attending Camp Sunshine, for children with cancer and their families, was the catalyst for Gray’s desire to help disabled individuals accomplish unexpected feats. At UGA, he earned his degree in recreational therapy; during an internship in Park City, Utah, Gray taught disabled adults and kids to water ski, canoe, kayak, snowboard, ski and other activities.

Working at a Veterans Administration hospital in Augusta, he helped injured military members discover new recreational outlets or adapt to activities they previously enjoyed. Sports included golf, kayaking, cycling and climbing, with Gray getting approval to build a 50-foot outdoor climbing wall.

“I was always looking for great opportunities to provide for people with disabilities in areas that they didn’t think possible,” Gray says. “Who thinks about climbing when you’re a paraplegic?”

In September 2012, Catalyst, a faith-based 501(c)(3) organization and Paradox Sports, an adaptive climbing program in Boulder, Colo., helped three wounded warriors accomplish a climb in Grand Teton National Park.

At Catalyst’s clinics in Atlanta, individuals who are blind and battling motor deficits from tumors and conditions such as cerebral palsy have scaled the walls. Others have lost their legs, whether on the battlefield or due to illnesses such as cancer.

Gray is empowering people to give recreational activities a try and providing assistance and training so they can be successful. One blind participant didn’t make it up the beginner wall at his first clinic. On his next try, during one of Catalyst’s weekly clinics (discounted rates are provided for participants), the man made it to the top four times, with Gray guiding him.

Wheelchair-bound individuals can be strapped into a special harness (donated by North Carolina-based Misty Mountain Threadworks) to ascend the wall. Some people may wonder what joy results from an activity like that, but Gray believes it provides an emotional boost.

“When the kid is nervous and going up, and you see him get to the top … and comes down with a huge grin on his face, that’s an opportunity that he’s probably never had before,” Gray says.