Disabled learn water sports on Lay Lake

It’s a place where freedom and hope reign through a shot of independence on the water.

It’s a place where smiles are given that take days, weeks or even a lifetime to erase.

A number of those smiles came Saturday, just like any other day on Lay Lake with Adaptive Aquatics, as Ashley Moulin, 17, skied through the water for the first time in seven years.

“It was fun to see the smile on her face and her being able to have fun out there just like anyone else,” said Joann Moulin of her daughter, who has cystic fibrosis. “I’m always looking for opportunities for her – things that she can do that you didn’t think that there were any opportunities like that out there.”

Joann first heard about Adaptive Aquatics while working as an aqua aerobics instructor at Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham. There, she met Rhonda Jarvis-Ray, whose husband Joe serves as the executive director of Adaptive Aquatics.

Joann brought Ashley and her sister Cheree to the lake that summer and experienced Ashley in the water for the first time, moving without her wheelchair. The family returned Saturday after a long hiatus from the lake.

“I just loved her face and watching her have a good time and being able to be out there and enjoy the wind and just be free,” said Cheree after watching her older sister ski Saturday.

It’s that experience that helps fuel the work done in Paradise Cove on Lake Lake.

“There’s soccer and track and all of these sports for able-bodied children and to see these parents find an outlet for their child who’s very, very physically involved like Ashley and go ‘Wow’ … It’s rewarding,” Rhonda said.

HEART OF A CHAMPION

Joe, a three-time world champion disabled water skier, has been able to serve people with disabilities for two decades because he’s no different than they are.

He first experienced the freedom of leaving his wheelchair on the dock and gliding above the water as a camper at Camp ASCA on Lake Martin in 1982 – four years after losing the use of his legs in a car accident.

He loved his experience with Adaptive Aquatics director Phil Martin so much that he decided to buy a ski and then eventually teach so he could ski more frequently. Teaching turned into taking over the organization in the mid ’90s when Phil became disabled with multiple sclerosis.

Since then, Joe’s back yard on Lay Lake has provided water sport opportunities for people, ages 3-80, with a wide range of disabilities and hosted numerous camps for wounded military across the nation. Joe also helps start adaptive water sports programs in other states.

“It’s about individuals like me that found a sport that they can do but also it kind of transcended into everyday life,” Joe said. “I see that this little event (water skiing) transforms their life and makes them go on to bigger and better things. It’s pretty amazing.”

One can’t spend more than two minutes at Adaptive Aquatics without seeing why Joe loves what he does and why his students love him. Many would have never touched the water without his steady, friendly encouragement and cheers.

“You started it all,” wrote Wanda Manning in an e-mail to Joe about her daughter Melanie. “I can’t thank you enough for the life changing opportunity you extended to her and for not taking no for an answer from her!”

Melanie, paralyzed from the neck down, went on to play rugby and take up painting after her experience at Adaptive Aquatics.

Joe has even had some go on to follow his path in competitive skiing and become national or world champions.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT

As Adaptive Aquatics prepares to enter its fourth decade of operation in a couple of years, it hopes to operate across the slew from its current site in a new multiple-dock facility that will allow families and other skiers a chance to watch sessions as they wait their turn.

After five years in the making, Joe hopes the new site will become a reality this fall. Once the buildings are completed, he’ll begin seeking donations to expand his equipment with a new fishing boat, pontoon boat and jet ski, among other needs.

To learn more about Adaptive Aquatics visit its Web site at www.adaptiveaquatics.org.