Clovis high athlete set to compete at CIF State Track & Field Championships in wheelchair
Two years ago, the CIF added several adaptive events to the state track & field meet, allowing wheelchair and para-ambulatory athletes to participate. This weekend at Buchanan, for the first time, a Central Valley high schooler will compete in his wheelchair at the State Championships.
Shawn Vanaman is a trailblazer - believed to be the first Central Section track athlete to ever compete in a wheelchair racer. He's been doing it this whole season, in the very same races as his able-bodied peers.
"I have to see him not as an athlete in a wheelchair, he's an athlete," says Clovis head coach Bill Buettner. "The commands are the same. He's on the same starting line he's run in the same race. He is a 100 meter athlete. If that's the race he's running."
Shawn is always well behind everyone else, but the cheers for him are unmistakably the loudest.
"The crowds at every venue have just been screaming their heart out, and Shawn's digging it," says Shawn's wheelchair racer coach Eric Baker. "You're going to see a little bit of like fire in his eyes that you don't normally see."
Shawn has Spina bifida. It's a neural defect where the spinal cord doesn't develop properly. It affects his ability to process and comprehend information, and though he can walk, he needs to wear leg braces.
Shawn's parents say while Shawn was outgoing and carefree as a kid, once he realized he was different than his peers, he became shy, and very serious.
Shawn's mom, Dianne Vanaman, says, "That was really hard for Jeff and I because you know, having a little guy that was so happy and go you know and not a care in the world, then as you know as time goes by he just kind of became a little bit more reserved."
But now, for the first time in a long time, there is that fire in Shawn's eyes, and a beaming smile on his face.
"He talks about it," explains Dianne. "He's confident, his confidence has been boosted by it. I mean he's just a whole different kid as far as the confidence level."
Shawn's abilities have exceeded expectations, too. He enters this weekend's state meet as the top seed in the Wheelchair 100, 200 and 400 meter dash.
Shawn's dad, Jeff Vanaman, says, "Oh super proud of him. I don't want to cry right now because yeah he's he makes me proud. He's an amazing athlete. It's just amazing to see where he's come, you know, like where he started and where he is now."
Shawn says that place, is part of a team. When asked what he's enjoyed most about being a Cougar varsity athlete, it kept coming back to his classmates.
"It's really fun," says Shawn. "Just being around all the kids and talking to people. Being able to make more friends."
Shawn had to push himself out of his comfort zone to make this happen. But time and again at races this spring, people couldn't help but notice the 17-year-old blazing a trail.
"I was telling him today, I said, 'maybe there's some little kid, sitting on his couch, and he's in a wheelchair, and he doesn't believe that he can do anything,' says Jeff. "He's like the guy they look at and go, 'hey, look at Shawn, Shawn's got it.' So you can do that also."