The first time I talked to Alanna Flax-Clark I remember thinking: “Wow! This lady has a lot of good energy to share.”
Once you actually learn about everything she went through just to be here today talking to us, you are absolutely sure of that first impression. Alanna is a pioneer in a new vaulting category called “Adaptive Vaulting” or “ParaVaulting”; Vaulting accessible to athletes who suffer from different types of disabilities.
We all know that vaulting is an incredible experience, and adaptive vaulting doesn’t stand out. It’s much more than an opportunity to improve people’s health, it’s an opportunity for inclusion and self growth.
I usually say that vaulting is more than just a sport, it’s a way of life. It’s about being part of a family, overcoming challenges and dancing on horses. And the sport really has no boundaries, vaulting doesn’t care about who you are, as long as you care about horses and practice with your heart.
Alanna tells her whole story on her blog, but she was kind enough to answer a few questions and introduce us to this new reality:
- In your blog you tell us a little bit about your life and say that when you were 13 you woke up and couldn’t move. At such a young age, how was it for you to deal with the fact that all your plans would, all of a sudden, have to change and your life would be different?
At that time I was starting a new school, making new friends, enjoying my classes, and getting involved in different, exciting activities. I had always been well and healthy, so to feel like something was taking over my body was very frustrating. I didn’t know what to do and I just wanted to be living a “normal” teenage life. I didn’t want to be with my parents and spending so much time at doctors. I found my new home was the hospital which is not where you want to be as a teenager. Luckily, however, I had very supportive friends and family who came to visit and spend time with me. I got used to a new normal and focused on getting well again. When I had enough energy and was out of the hospital, my friends would take me out and my family was always right by my side through every procedure, physical therapy session, surgery, appointment, and anything else I needed. Throughout it all, though, I knew my life wasn’t over. I was always setting goals and making big plans for my future.
- How did you come across vaulting? And how does it fit into your life right now?
In 2008 after losing even more function throughout my body from an infection, I went through much rehab and treatments with very little results. I got very frustrated and only wanted to get stronger, regain more mobility, coordination, and just be able to go outside in the fresh air and have fun. From my years of teaching special education I knew a number of my students had used horse therapy for various reasons. I didn’t grow up around horses, but I felt like this was something I had to take advantage of. I started hippotherapy and began making progress with my body. Since then I have progressed from hippotherapy to weekly regular riding lessons.
About a year ago, Valley View Vaulters came to perform a demonstration where I ride. I had never heard of vaulting, but when I saw what they were doing I knew immediately that I had to get involved! It looked like too much fun not to be a part of! When I met with my coach, Rick, for the first time he was a bit unsure of what to do with me. Here’s a girl who can’t walk and can’t use her hands, but is ready to get up and do gymnastics on the back of the horse! Rick is also an amputee and has much of the same stubborn, go-getter attitude that I do. So, he was up for the challenge. Since starting there, I’ve seen my coordination increase, balance and strength improve, and it has also helped my riding. We have an awesome team that comes together like family and jumps in to help one another out.
Currently, I practice 2-3 days a week. I can’t get enough of it! Not only do I have tons of fun when I’m there, but it helps my body physically. On days when I can’t go, I can feel the difference. I’ve now competed in two competitions, one of them being the Regional Championships, earning first and second place in my classes.
As someone who is considered to have a disability, I really enjoy this sport. Most people in wheelchairs participate in sports with other people who have similar disabilities. Vaulting is something I can compete in and be judged against all my able bodied peers. It truly forces me to work harder and figure out how to do the same exercises and routines just as everyone else. And who wouldn’t enjoy doing a back roll off a horse into your wheelchair? How cool is that!
- Does your coach teach other kids with disabilities?
Valley View Vaulters was started in 1980 with seven vaulters, a practice barrel, and one horse. Since then, Rick and Virginia Hawthorne have expanded their program, with about one-third of the vaulters having a disability. They are unique in that they are among the few mainstream, competitive vaulting teams that have both vaulters with and without disabilities participating in one inclusive environment, including those with physical/cognitive disabilities, behavioral problems and at-risk youth. They believe that everyone benefits when all abilities are included in the same class. Their classes consist of no more than 10 vaulters of all ages and abilities. This small environment allows the vaulters to learn from one another and truly have the attention of Coach Rick and the volunteers. When guided properly by Coach Rick Hawthorne, vaulting becomes fun and builds up strength, self- esteem, and the necessary skills to work as part of a team with no barriers of age, gender or abilities.
Check out their website: http://www.valleyviewvaulters.com/
- A lot of what you do on the horse had to be invented from scratch. How was the process of figuring out exactly how you would be able to vault? Learning to mount, dismount, figuring out which exercises you could do etc.
When working on something new or beginning a new freestyle, my coach and I always first establish what the normal way to do something is. Then, we look at what is keeping me from doing it that way. Can we adjust to that or do we have to find a new way to do it? Most importantly, I need to understand what’s happening with the exercise and we both need to know how I’m feeling about doing it- my comfort level. It should always feel doable and not too difficult to overcome. Throughout it all, I’m always building on my strengths and weaknesses. A big part is also trusting my coach and teammates when conquering any new challenge, and of course having fun.
- As a special education teacher, you worked with kids with disabilities right? Do you think vaulting could be an option to help the treatment of disorders such as autism or child schizophrenia? Why?
As a special education teacher I worked with kids as old as 21 and as young as 3 years. The kids I taught had a range of diagnoses from schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, down syndrome, OCD, etc. Some of the kids I taught used hippotherapy as a treatment modality, but vaulting is not known everywhere. I wish more people could take advantage of it. Horses are amazing animals. The movement and sensory input from the horse can be used to address posture, balance, sensory integration, coordination, communication and mobility in people with disabilities. The well-trained horse moves in a rhythmic, symmetrical and organized way. The horse, in some respects, ‘lends’ his nervous system to the person so that the he/she may experience organized movement. This movement cannot be achieved by a machine or in a rehab setting.
Vaulting, in particular, is a team sport where you learn to form relationships full of respect and encouragement, where the vaulters challenge one another and continue to grow and learn. Numerous benefits emerge from this including higher self-esteem, increased motivation, and improved communication. In addition, the therapeutic, inclusive environment sets the vaulter up for success.
I’d love to see more equestrian centers develop where vaulting was taught to people with all disabilities and abilities. Many people think that getting on a horse is impossible depending on their disability; but if there’s a will, there’s a way! I also think that people should see that it is a sport where people can compete at various levels and push themselves no matter their age and ability. The vaulting community is very supportive; horses are amazing and can and will learn to work with you and your specific needs.
- What do you think could help the field of “paravaulting” to grow? Maybe extra training for coaches on the matter? Special horses? Do you think people are receptive to this idea?
Vaulting is truly an accessible sport for everyone, no matter your age or ability. The horses used are big, but they are such gentle giants. Our horse, Ben, now knows to stop when he sees someone rolling my wheelchair over for me to dismount. He will not move when my chair is by his feet. Our other horse, Waldmeister, is so calm around me that I can hold his lead line and he’ll give me kisses all day.
A big part to grow the field is awareness for coaches, as well as for the general public that this is an accessible sport. There needs to be more cooperation between clubs in the US, and between countries for building up a standard of vaulting. It is within reach, but other vaulting groups need to understand that they can teach and do what we at Valley View Vaulters do.
When I tell people about vaulting, many have never heard of it. When I start explaining, they wonder how it’s possible for me to even attempt it. If you see one person doing it, it opens up doors to others. Also, the coaches need to know that it is possible; that it is safe, and actually beneficial for the entire team.
It is awesome for me to go to practice and be around people older than me, as well as much younger. What is great, though, is that no one sees me as being disabled. It’s a great feeling when one of the other vaulters asks me to look at their freestyle to see how they can improve or what they can add. Another might ask me to critique their compulsories.
When I go with Valley View Vaulters to competitions or demos, I have many people come up to me and ask me questions. The interest in “paravaulting” is definitely there, we just need more exposure. I feel so free and completely safe when I’m vaulting. When I’m with the horses it’s the best time of my week. I look at pictures and videos of the progress I have made. More people should be able to experience that.
Do you wanna learn more about Adaptive Vaulting?
Adaptive Vaulting Facebook Page
Corpoalegria – Adaptive Vaulting in Colombia