Kearny freshman Koziel wins three medals at NJSIAA Meet of Champs

Competes in wheelchair events; places in five events

Photo by Jim Hague/ Kearny High School freshman Steve Koziel displays the three medals he won at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions, becoming the fi rst wheelchair athlete from Kearny to ever win medals at the state meet.

By Jim Hague

Although he was born with cerebral palsy, Steve Koziel always wanted to compete in sports. “I was very limited to what I could do,” said Koziel, now a freshman at Kearny High School. “It was a big thing that my friends could always do more. A lot of times, I had to sit out. But I always liked sports. I’ve never been the type to sit around and do nothing.”

When he got a little older, Koziel tried to be active in skateboarding.

“But that didn’t go so well,” Koziel said.

He also tried his hand in basketball and soccer, but without full use of his legs, Koziel was more than a step behind.

Four years ago, while Koziel was making a routine visit to Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, he learned of a track and field team that was comprised exclusively of athletes with disabilities called “Lightning Wheels.”

Basically, it was a group of young men and women who competed in events while in wheelchairs.

“My doctor told me about the team and I was all for it,” Koziel said. “My parents were a little leery at first, because they thought I was a little too young for it. But the coach saw how I acted with the others who had disabilities and thought I could do well. He thought that I could relate to them.”

Koziel felt right at home.

“After the first practice, I felt like I could do it,” Koziel said. “It was a little tough at first, getting use to doing things in the chair. But I wanted to do it. The competitiveness was always there. Once I went to my first meet, it really sunk in. I wanted to do it.”

Koziel’s commitment to the Lightning Wheels meant that Steve’s father, Steve, Sr. had to do a lot of shuffling his son to and from practices.

When Koziel first started competing, he ran by using the crutches he utilizes to get around on a daily basis. Koziel is not wheelchair-bound.

“I thought I was getting pretty quick with the crutches,” Koziel said. “I did that for about a year. Using the crutches is all I’ve ever known, so getting in the chair was a little scarier. It was a whole new technique to learn. I was really worried about tipping over in the chair. It was really my first experience in the chair. The coaches made fun of me, but it was all in good spirits. I really knew I wanted to do it.”

Koziel said that it took him approximately two full years to get comfortable competing in the specialized sports racing chair.

Koziel spent a lot of time training with Lightning Wheels coach Phil Galli, who works at Children’s Specialized.

“He works integrating people with disabilities into high school sports,” Koziel said.

When Koziel entered Kearny High School, he expressed interest in being a part of the track team.

“It was definitely something I wanted to do,” Koziel said.

With approval from head coach Al Perez and help from assistant coach Steve Andrews – a former state champion in track during his days at Kearny High – Koziel became a regular member of the team.

“I went to 3-to-5 practices a week,” Koziel said. “Steve Andrews did a lot of work with me. He really took the time to work one-on-one with me. I just thought that I would be a part of the team. I never thought I’d really compete. I have friends who live in other states with disabilities and they never get the chance. Steve told me that they would enter me in any meet that they could. They all went far and beyond helping me.”

Koziel said that Andrews was a big help in his development.

“He was the perfect guy to train me,” Koziel said. “There were some days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, but he was there. He had his way with me. In the beginning, no one knew how to train a wheelchair athlete, but he knew.”

Recently, Koziel went to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in Old Bridge to compete in the wheelchair portion of the meet. Just like all the other able bodied athletes there, Koziol took to the track and competed in six events.

Koziel managed to come away with three medals, winning the javelin with a throw of 37 feet, taking second in the shot put and discus.

Koziel also finished fourth in the 400, 800 and 1,600-meter runs, meaning he placed in every event he entered.

And remember, he did the field events while sitting in a chair, meaning he threw the javelin 37 feet while seated. Truly a remarkable feat.

“The discus is my favorite,” Koziel said. “Normally, I can really click it with my style of throwing. It’s all about strength and technique.”

The 15-year-old Koziel will continue to train to get ready for the United States National Wheelchair Games in Mesa, Arizona from July 21-28.

“I’m definitely excited about that,” Koziel said. “The nationals are my favorite part of the year.”

Needless to say, Koziel never dreamed his involvement in track and field would lead to this, winning a state championship.

“Back when I started, I didn’t know if I would have taken it this seriously,” Koziel said. “I needed to have someone push me.”

Koziel knows that there are others with disabilities from the area who will look to him as being a role model.

“It’s a good feeling to know that, but I don’t like to say that I motivate or inspire anyone,” Koziel said. “I feel like anyone else. I know I’m paving the way for others with disabilities and I know I’m the first one from Kearny. But I’m just like anyone else.”

As a freshman, Koziel knows that he can only improve from here, getting three more chances to compete at the Meet of Champions.

“I’m going to give it my all to get back there again,” Koziel said. “I know that people are going to expect that much more from me. Now that I’m a state champion, I have to do even better.”

Koziel has a bigger goal in mind.

“My ultimate goal would be to compete in the Paralympics one day,” Koziel said. “Having people like Al Perez and Steve Andrews to push me and support me, I think it’s possible. That was the biggest thing when I started here. I needed the support. I was worried how they would react. But they gave me nothing but support.”

Koziel has another long-term aspiration.

“I want to be a graphic designer,” Koziel said.

Koziel is already considering the University of Illinois or the University of Arizona. The reason?

“They both have wheelchair track programs,” he said.

Spoken like a true champion.

The Observer Staff