By Ron Leir
In June, senior Steve Koziel will graduate from Kearny High School and, like most of his peers, move on to college – in his case, the University of Illinois.
But Koziel – with four AP courses (in biology, statistics, Spanish and English) and ranked seventh in a class of 400 – is focused on an even bigger goal.
As a wheelchair athlete, he’s got his sights set on training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where – if he qualifies – he’ll compete with the best in the world.
In a potential run-up to the main event, Koziel will be participating this summer as a member of the national Paralympic Junior Team USA July 1-8 in Stadskanaal, Netherlands.
Faced with the dual pressures of athletics and academics, you’d think the 12th-grader would have enough on his plate.
Aside from participating in indoor and outdoor cross-country events as a member of the KHS track-and-field team, every Thursday he travels to Westfield to practice with the Children’s Lightning Wheels Sports Club, based at the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside.
“I didn’t learn about the Lightning Wheels until I joined scouting (Boy Scouts Troop 2, sponsored by the Lincoln School Booster Club) seven years ago,” Koziel said. “I’ve been a member of the club since 2009.”
Koziel said the club, which provides athletic opportunities for individuals with disabilities, has about a dozen active members ranging in age from 5 to 22, mostly from New Jersey with some from eastern Pennsylvania, and competes in regional meets held mostly in Union County and South Brunswick.
Over the years, five club members have gone on to participate in Paralympics events overseas: Sydney in 2000; Athens in 2004; Bejing in 2008; and London in 2012. Koziel himself has competed in London and Puerto Rico.
In 2012, the club’s coaches pitched an application, with a promotional video about the club, to the U.S. Olympic Committee for a grant to help offset the cost of training equipment and travel expenses but didn’t get it.
The next year, Koziel decided to take on the grant challenge as a project to attain his Eagle Scout rank, the highest distinction in scouting.
“I noticed that we didn’t have that many athletes in our club,” he said, and that struck him as worrisome, given that in the northeast region alone, from the Boston area to Virginia, “there are maybe 300 people, including coaches and judges,” participating in competitions for the disabled.
“Our club will be hosting the Nationals Junior Disabilities Championships July 18-24 in Union County parks with events in swimming, archery, power lifting, track and field, pentathlon and road racing and we’re expecting 350 athletes from all over the U.S., of which the northeast region accounts for one quarter to one half that number,” he said.
So, Koziel resolved to put together a new video that would be designed “like a P.A. announcement to show what opportunities are out there” for disabled athletes.
He enlisted the aid of a professional voice-over artist to narrate the video and filmed the club’s athletes in competition, along with several supportive friends swimming and doing other activities.
It wasn’t easy. Since the club’s season ran from February to July and its members practiced only once a week, filming proceeded slowly. It took a year and a half to wrap.
“We wound up with a 6-minute video and we sent copies to the doctors in the Children’s Specialized Hospital network which has 13 locations around the state and one to each special needs child,” Koziel said.
The club’s new bid for the Olympic Committee aid was, unfortunately, unsuccessful, he said, but the club did manage to get five new recruits. And he became an Eagle Scout.
“Through scouting,” Koziel said, “I’ve bettered myself as a person and athlete. Together, they’ve made me well-rounded.” He has learned to accept the premise that, “I’ve got to do the thing I really love.”
At the same time, the soon-to-be KHS alum draws on the “comradery” from his school teammates. “It’s part of the legacy I’m leaving here – Kearny is definitely a success story. The coaches and I have a mutual respect for each other. We each give something to the other: we can work together.”
What’s more, he said, “There’s a misconception people have about disability that the focus is on what you can’t do but we’re trying to break down that barrier and show what we can do. But parathletes have to work 120% to prove it. That shouldn’t have to happen and that hasn’t happened here in Kearny, either in athletics or in scouts. They both accept me as I am.
“And I don’t think I’d be here today without the help of my friends and family,” he added.