HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – One Houghton High School athlete is helping rewrite the rules to allow for more inclusivity for all.

“My sophomore year I was paralyzed from Transverse Myelitis which is a sudden unexplained inflammation of the spinal cord,” Maria Velat, senior at Houghton High School said. “I used a wheelchair for about half a year and now I use a crutch and braces to walk, but I still can’t run or walk fully”

A varsity track and cross country runner for the Gremlins, Maria knew she had to adapt in order to continue doing what she loved.

“So I use a wheelchair to run in track and basically I’m just using my arms to propel myself,” Velat said.

When the 2021 track season came around, Maria said she found out firsthand about the lack of inclusion when it comes to adaptive sports.

“Last spring, the Michigan High School Athletics Association (MHSAA) didn’t have any rules for adaptive athletes in track at all, so we created a conference level agreement that allowed me to earn points and score points for conference meets,” Velat said. “But when it came to regionals and finals, which MHSAA runs, I couldn’t score points or qualify for U.P. finals unless I qualified like the standing runners which would be impossible.”

“One problem with the MHSAA rules at the regionals and finals is that they’re not giving the adaptive athletes points and she thinks that’s not fair,” John Velat, Maria’s Dad said. “I think it’s not fair and every kid who competes should be ranked and earn points if they get out there and they perform. That’s really what she wants and she wants people of all abilities to be able to do every event “

Using the challenges of the 2021 season as motivation, Maria set out to ensure no other adaptive athlete would have the same experience.

“So we created a proposal with Houghton High School which was submitted to MHSAA that allows players to compete, score points for their team and qualify for further events,” Velat said. “MHSAA voted on it this past spring and they passed it partially, so they allowed certain events for wheelchair competitors.”

Through this proposal, Maria and other adaptive athletes are now able to compete in the 100, 200, and 400-meter dash, as well as shotput at the regional and finals level. However, they are still unable to collect points towards their team’s overall score, an area Maria is still advocating for change in.

“We’re hoping to expand our proposal,” Velat said. “Right now this is a two-year trial period and we’re hoping that it’ll work out and then we can expand it further to more events and athletes like ambulatory athletes who are those with amputations. The goal is to just to have adaptive athletes compete exactly the same as non-adaptive athletes and be able to score points.”

“The reason for bringing the changes in the rules is so that other kids could get out there and play and so that other kids can find out that they can also be athletes too,” John Velat said. “In the very near future we are going to have all kinds of kids, there are tens of thousands of kids in Michigan who could be athletes and they don’t even know it. Now if these rules are placed in the schools then those people can find out they can get out there, have fun, compete and enjoy sports just like everybody else.”

Maria will continue her academic and athletic career at the University of Michigan where she will be a member of the track team and will continue to advocate for inclusion for everyone in all sports.