Wrestling was a big part of Derek Carnes’ family history.
So he continued the tradition, even with just one leg.
The former Murray County High School student graduated in 2010 and spent four seasons in the Indians’ wrestling program, competing at the varsity level his sophomore year. He did this with a prosthetic left leg, and he is one example of a handful of student-athletes in nearby high schools who are competing or have competed at the varsity level despite either mental or physical disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education is directing all public schools to provide more opportunities for students with disabilities in interscholastic sports. It’s a clarification of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s Section 504, which tells schools “that access to interscholastic, intramural and intercollegiate athletics is a right.”
The new initiative asks for reasonable changes to rules, so long as it doesn’t affect the game.
Carnes thrived beyond any accommodations made in practices and at competitions. He was born without a fibula in his left leg and had an amputation from the knee down. In practices, he wrestled with a prosthetic leg. In competitions against other schools, he left it off the mat.
He wrestled for 15 years, something he was brought into from family history.
“I wrestled everybody at practice,” he said. “There wasn’t much I could do. I learned every day in practice.”
He is a student at Georgia Northwestern Technical College with a degree focus in business management. In high school, he focused on being the best wrestler he could be.
“Wrestling was a big thing in my family,” Carnes said. “My dad, grandpa and uncle did it. I was always big in sports. My dad asked if I wanted to do it and so I tried wrestling.”
There have been others with disabilities, too, but coaches within the public schools system declined to give names, citing student privacy laws.
“We’ve had a student, I guess it was about 3 or 4 years ago, his vision wasn’t that great,” Northwest football coach Josh Robinson said. “He ran track for us and did pretty good (in one of the relays and as a long-distance runner).”
Said Dalton coach Mike Duffie, “Physical disabilities? No. Mentally challenged? Yeah, through the years I’ve had kids who had learning disabilities. ... Not only have they made the team, but they’ve been good players.”
There were some challenges for Carnes. His moveset was limited and in practice there were some moves such as leg takedowns that Carnes’ partner couldn’t practice on him. And in competitions, there were some opponents who did not know how to handle wrestling him.
“There were some people who said, ‘What the heck do I do?’” Carnes said. “There were some who wrestled as long as I had and knew what to do. Some were freaked out but some wrestled me normal.”
And there was the two last years when he didn’t make varsity due to injuries, including fatty tumors on the remainder of his left leg that caused staph infections. But he still won a wrestleoff his sophomore year for the Indians’ 138-pound varsity spot, an example that his disability did not entirely keep him from competing with able-bodied students.
It isn’t known how many students with disabilities are competing at high schools in Whitfield or Murray county, but three examples prove there are opportunities for kids in school athletics. Either the athletes or their parents or coaches all said there are few modifications made to practices and games.
Blake Phillips, a Coahulla Creek High School senior, is hearing impaired in both ears and has a speech impediment, but is the baseball team’s starting shortstop and a runner for the cross country team.
He played baseball and ran cross country at Northwest Whitfield his freshman and sophomore years before transferring to Coahulla Creek.
With cross country, meets start with a gun shot, but the distance is long enough that Blake responding to others starting does not affect how he finishes.
“I wait for the other runners to go,” Phillips said. “It doesn’t matter. I just react to the runners, and it really doesn’t cause that much of a delay because of the distance of the race.”
Phillips played basketball in middle school but stopped to give more attention to baseball. However, on the hardwood he often had difficulty hearing his opponents approaching from behind when he was dribbling. It was a secondary reason to stop. He wanted to focus on baseball.
“Each situation will be different,” said Dan Phillips, Blake’s father. “It affected him a little more in basketball. As long as he could see things happening, he could react to it. In baseball, I played him at third base as a youth. Therefore, everything could be in front of him.”
Northwest Whitfield junior Amel Pehlivanovic is on the Bruins swimming team despite having Down Syndrome, thanks to coach Marta Hannah’s request for him to fill one of the program’s 50 spots.
“I don’t do tryouts. I have 50 spots. Whoever signed up on time, they are on the team,” Hannah said. “The doctor said swimming was the best thing for him. It keeps his heart and lungs strong.
“I invited him and we approached the parents. They were so happy.”
Whenever Pehlivanovic swims, he often finishes far behind the rest of the field, but receives a standing ovation from fans, teammates and opponents.
“The kids love him. Everyone we swim against knows him from the team,” Hannah said.
“He is an inspiration not just for our team but all teams we swim with.”
Dalton High’s Trey Davis is on the swim team despite being born with chronic bone deficiency, which means the femur in his left leg did not grow and one side is shorter than the other. He had his left leg amputated from the ankle down three years ago and now uses a prosthetic leg.
He said Dalton swim coach Charles Todd gives him wider lanes with enough swimming space, and talks to referees about alternate rules, including the breaststroke motion. With his prosthetic leg, Davis couldn’t dive off the blocks, and officials allowed him to stand on the side.
“Once he got OK to dive off the blocks, we would put a towel down on the block to allow him to dive off,” said Paula Diamond, Davis’ mother.
However, Davis played football in middle school right after his amputation and received playing time in both practices and games.
In practice, he did as many cross-field sprints as possible, and made up for the ones he didn’t do with extra pushups and situps.
“The referees kind of had a problem at the beginning,” Davis said. “They said I had to wrap my leg so people didn’t get hurt. In the end, I didn’t have to do anything except let the referees know.”
But he stopped after one season, and said a reason was to protect his leg.
An option for schools, if altering the rules isn’t possible, is to form alternative teams and leagues for students with disabilities, with similar financial support to the programs already in place.
“I think it’d be something I could do,” Davis said of an alternate football team. “It would keep me busy year round.”
Between the Georgia High School Association and the Atlanta-based American Association of Adapted Sports Programs, the sports offered for students with disabilities include: wheelchair basketball, wheelchair football, wheelchair handball and wheelchair track and field.
Teams can be specific to one school, formed within an entire school system or generated from regions with multiple school systems working together. Beverly Vaughn, AAASP director, said the nearest team is probably in Gwinnett County.
Dalton athletic director Ron Ward said the idea is definitely something he would look into if there was interest shown.
“The need hasn’t been there to do something like that,” Ward said. “We would need to have enough interest shown to put forth the effort. If we had that many kids who were interested, and the competition would preclude them from participating, we’d partner without whoever we needed to partner with.
“If we had someone who really wanted a wheelchair basketball team, I’d contact other schools and whoever we needed to in order to put that together.”