Darrel Bouie Jr. was 6 years old when his mother lost control of her car in a rainstorm off Sunrise Boulevard and crashed into a concrete wall, killing herself and leaving her son heartbroken and paralyzed from the waist down.
Bouie, now a 15-year-old freshman at Fort Lauderdale High, has had some rough times growing up. But this past weekend wasn’t one of them.
He and Cypress Bay sophomore Isabella Matos, who was born with cerebral palsy, were too busy racing in their wheelchairs at this weekend’s high school track and field state championships in Bradenton to feel anything but elation.
Competing amongst a field of four boys and four girls from around the state in the adaptive division, Bouie and Matos participated in the 200 meters, 800 meters and shot put and left the state meet not only with medals and trophies in their possession, but also knowing they left smiles on the faces of thousands of fans and fellow athletes.
“They’re trailblazers,” Fort Lauderdale coach David Martin said. “They’re special kids. Their attitude is contagious, it really is, to their teams, to all of us. I’ve been coaching 20 years and this is first time I’ve had an adaptive athlete. We’ve won state championships, regional championships, district championships, but this has probably been the most rewarding year right here for me.”
According to adaptedsports.org, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky are the three states where students in wheelchairs are eligible to compete on their school track teams. Although the Florida High School Athletic Association has held track championships for adaptive student-athletes since 2010, it wasn’t until Matos, 16, participated in last year’s state meet that a South Florida wheelchair-bound athlete got involved.
This year, Matos was happy to have a fellow local competitor in Bouie around. There still has yet to be an adaptive athlete from Miami-Dade County to compete and Matos and Bouie are hoping that eventually changes.
“We really want to see if we can get more athletes to compete,” said Manny Matos, Isabella’s father. “A lot of times, a kid in a wheelchair isn’t aware this is something they can be involved with. The word has to get out.”
Cypress Bay cross-country and girls’ track coach Joseph Monks has worked in physical education with adaptive and special needs students for over 20 years including the last 11 in Weston. Monks, who has worked with Special Olympians for years, has wanted athletes in wheelchairs without an intellectual disability to also have a place to compete and is glad Matos and Bouie are now around to serve as examples.
Eventually, Monks said he would like to get Bouie and Matos racing wheelchairs so they could compete in local 5K races and be seen by more of the local community. Those racing chairs, though, cost in the thousands. Both Bouie and Matos competed in regular chairs this past weekend.
“Once she gets in a racing chair,” Manny Matos said of his daughter. “She’s going to be unstoppable.”
As it stands, both teenagers are already making an impact with their schoolmates and teachers. Both Matos and Bouie spent all season practicing alongside their able-bodied track teammates. Even when the season ended for some of those students, Monks said several girls kept coming out last week and training alongside Matos to help her prepare for the state meet.
“They came out each day and worked with her on the track with her. They ran with her, had camraderie,” said Monks, who spotted Matos her eighth grade year at Cypress Bay Middle school and began encouraging her then to come out for the track team once she entered the ninth grade.
“For girls like Bella, this just gives them a positive outlook on life. They have something to look forward to in the afternoon. They say OK maybe instead of going home and just doing home work, I can go to practice and work for 90 minutes, work on my skills. It’s great for their self-esteem.”
Matos, who was inducted in the Broward County Hall of Fame last year, hopes to follow in the footsteps of her favorite paralympic athlete Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time medalist, who won four gold medals and two silvers at the Rio Games last summer.
“She actually sent me a video when I was getting inducted into the Broward County Hall of Fame,” Matos said. “So, she’s my biggest inspiration when it comes to track. I want to be able to do what she's done. I want to get into the paralympics, get scholarships. That’s a goal of mine. I have big goals for track. But my biggest one has to be the paralympics. That’s where I want to be.”
For her father, Manny, her coach and others, dreaming big and reaching for the stars is all they want for Matos, Bouie and other future adaptive athletes.
“When Darrel walks back to school with those medals around his neck – like he did at regionals – it’s going to make the whole student body proud,” Martin said. “The principal, she loves him to death. We really want to push this as far as we can go with it. I encourage the other coaches at other schools to encourage their kids to get involved. They’re a part of our student body. Let them be a part of it 100 percent, even in athletics.”