KHS junior shows his prowess competing in wheelchair division
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Born with cerebral palsy 17 years ago, Steve Koziel has never once believed he has a handicap. More than anything, it’s an inconvenience for him to walk with the assistants of two crutches or it’s a matter of circumstance that Koziel has to compete in an athletic wheelchair.
Because let’s face facts. How many teenaged kids from Kearny can travel the globe and head to places like Puerto Rico and London just to compete in athletic competitions? That’s what Koziel does every summer.
Last summer, he spent 10 days in Puerto Rico competing in the Junior World Games, winning two silver medals (800-meter run and discus) and one bronze (javelin).
“There were like 14 countries there,” Koziel said. “It was a good idea of the kind of competition I had to face. The competition was stiff.”
After Puerto Rico, Koziel went to the United States Emerging Elite Paralympic Camp in Geneva, Ohio, training with some of the best paralympic athletes in the country.
“We worked on training, sports psychology,” Koziel said. “It was definitely a big help.”
When Koziel returned home, he immediately began training with the Kearny High School cross country team, then later the indoor track team, all to get ready for one night – the NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Frank Jost Field in South Plainfield.
“I prepare 12 months of the year for the outdoor season,” Koziel said. “I work on getting mileage in, getting endurance during cross country. During indoor, it’s about speed and agility. I then have to put it all together for the outdoor. All the coaches work with me to get me ready. They work all year to get it all together for one meet.”
Last Wednesday, Koziel headed to South Plainfield for that one meet. He competed in six events, won three, placed second in two and earned a bronze medal in the last event. One meet, six events, six medals. Not a bad day for Koziel. “I felt good,” Koziel said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Koziel, now a junior at Kearny, won the discus with a throw of 45 feet, won the javelin with a throw of 34 feet and took home the gold medal in the shot put with a throw of 13 feet. He was second in the 100-meter dash in 20.7 seconds (a personal record), a second place finish in the 400-meter run in 75 seconds (“That was a good race for me,” Koziel said.) and finished third in the 800-meter run in 2:37.
“It’s a good feeling,” Koziel said. “It validates what I’m doing. I set some new PRs (personal record) and won some medals. Freshman year, I only medaled in three events, the field events. Last year, I got four medals, so I am definitely moving along nicely.”
Koziel was asked what it meant for him to be on the same track with some of the state’s premier track and field’s best performers.
“It’s really nice,” Koziel said. “It shows how far we’ve come and how much we’ve broken down the common perception of disability. A lot of it is now what you can do and what you can’t do. We’ve all come together with one common purpose, just to compete like the able-bodied kids This is what we do. We all train all year long for this one meet, train three seasons for one meet.”
Koziel will now head to the United States Paralympic Track and Field Nationals in California June 17.
A week later, Koziel heads to Indianapolis to compete in the Fast Cow Invitational, with the nation’s top paralympic athletes competing.
If Koziel is fortunate enough to get selected, he will then head to London with U.S. National Team Aug. 1-9, where Koziel hopes to compete in the discus and javelin, as well as the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter runs at this year’s Junior World Games.
“I’ll be there with the best athletes in the world,” Koziel said. “There are going to be double the countries competing this year. It will give me a good idea of where I stand worldwide.”
Koziel’s ultimate goal is the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, two weeks after the regular Olympic Games take place.
“I would say that it’s a great life,” Koziel said. “How many kids can say that they’re working toward that goal?”
Koziel is hoping to head to the University of Illinois, which fields a wheelchair track and field team. Jersey City’s Raymond Martin, another top flight paralympian who is a good friend of Koziel, competes at Illinois.
“I would love to study sports psychology and sports medicine there,” Koziel said.
So when Koziel is asked about his handicap, he boldly says, “What disability?”
“Honestly, it doesn’t define me,” Koziel said.
Koziel doesn’t like thinking he’s an inspiration to other disabled athletes.
“I don’t like using the term ‘inspiration,’” Koziel said. “I just see myself as a mentor or a trailblazer. I might be breaking the barrier between disability and ability, but I’m not an inspiration. I’d rather be someone’s role model or mentor. There’s a social disconnect with being an inspiration. That’s why I like role model better.”
Koziel knows that other kids look to him and want him to succeed.
“If I can help kids dream of traveling the world, then that’s fine,” Koziel said. “I guess I’m doing good for anybody my age.”