| SPORTS ROUNDUP
By Tom Scott
In late October 2009, Jess Markt, a 33-year-old Oregon native with a T6-7 spinal cord injury arrived at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan’s capital city after an exhausting 30-hour journey from New York. Built in the early 1960s during a period of modernization, the airport was now primarily used by U.S. Armed Forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the ongoing War in Afghanistan. Markt’s grogginess melted away as international security forces with their automatic rifles at the ready stared with curiosity as he made his way through the terminal, close to where Taliban forces had detonated a bomb just a month earlier. He had traveled to the country alone, except for a duffle bag and two wheelchairs––including a sports chair that was damaged during the flight and barely movable. He pushed it with one hand while maneuvering through the airport traffic in his everyday wheelchair. His destination was the small town of Maimana, a short flight from Kabul, where he would spend a week coaching a scrappy group of Afghans with disabilities that had formed a wheelchair basketball team.
Making a Difference
Markt, who was injured in a car accident at the age of 19 while attending the University of Oregon, had learned of the mentoring opportunity through Heather Metcalf, executive director of the nonprofit organization Artfully Unforgotten (www.artfullyunforgotten.com). Founded in 2007, Artfully Unforgotten advocates and raises resources for vulnerable communities throughout the world through the production of artistic exhibits, theatre, and artistic materials. Metcalf received her law degree from New York Law School. She has represented battered women and children in court and created “Mommy’s Little Girls,” a multi-media exhibit of opposing views and stereotypes of women, which debuted at the University of South Carolina to raise funds for women’s shelters.
During a trip to Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, to produce a short film and coffee table book on the accomplishments and hardships of Afghan women, Metcalf had found out about the creation of a new wheelchair basketball team at an orthopedic workshop and physiotherapy center in Maimana established by the International Assistance Mission (IAM––www.iam-afghanistan.org). IAM is comprised of Christian organizations that assist the population of Afghanistan with education, healthcare, and community development and has trained local staff to provide services to people with disabilities in the community, distributing over 1,000 orthopedic appliances and giving physiotherapy to over 1,100 clients. It also recently created a small preschool for children with cerebral palsy.
“I had a chance to watch the team practice and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” Metcalf said. “I had no knowledge of wheelchair basketball, but asked the clinic’s leader how I could help.”
She started sending out mass e-mails to see if there were any wheelchair basketball athletes in the states willing to assist the team. Markt, who enjoys international travel and is an avid reader of history, was the only one interested.
“It seemed like a great way to make a difference and would give me an opportunity to share my perspectives on playing sports and living with a disability with people that don’t have access to an abundance of resources,” Markt explains, adding that he fully understood the risks involved.
With support from Metcalf and Artfully Unforgotten, as well as his friends and family, Markt raised $3,000 for food and lodging expenses.
Jetlag and Jitters
Markt spent the first day of his trip at a house in Kabul where a group of friendly IAM staff from Europe and America were staying. Most houses and compounds in the City were either owned by affluent farmers or used by Western organizations.
Each compound was surrounded by high walls and a gated entrance protected by armed security guards called “chowkidors.” It seemed like there were as many automatic rifles on the streets of Afghanistan as there were cell phones on the streets of America. As a safety precaution, Westerners were forbidden to venture into town during the day or drive at night. Markt was told that 12-hours before his arrival, a United Nations-sponsored guest house just a mile away was attacked by the Taliban and that there were casualties. He began to question if he had made an awful mistake.
Battling jetlag and some jitters, Markt got very little sleep his first night at the compound. Just minutes after going to bed in preparation for the early morning trip to Maimana, Kabul was hit by an earthquake. Given his sleep-deprived state, Markt said that the ground rumbling and walls swaying around him were extremely weird and unsettling experiences.
Still exhausted the next morning, he hitched a ride to Maimana on a plane with Norwegian and Latvian soldiers, but also in the privileged company of an all-girl Norwegian rock band that were performing at military bases in the area. “I’d probably fire my band’s promoter if they booked me on an Afghanistan military base tour, but the girls seemed to be enjoying themselves,” Markt says, swearing he didn’t make the story up.
To catch the flight, he had to wheel through a 300-yard maze-like gravel path surrounded in coil razor wire, endure questioning from Belgian soldiers in the freezing pre-dawn darkness, and board an armored truck. Much of Afghanistan’s mountainous and undeveloped land is difficult to traverse on foot; on wheels it was close to impossible.
Journey to Maimana
While Kabul had a few million people, Maimana had approximately 50,000. Markt found the atmosphere much calmer than in the capital city. Most of the people he met were intrigued by his presence.
“Besides wondering why I was visiting their town and how I got there, they were more surprised that I was using a wheelchair,” Markt says. “Many of the people believed that western medicine was so advanced that it cured everything.”
Metcalf had a similar experience during her stay in Maimana. “The town is not near the Pakistan border and ongoing conflict,” she said. “ You get to see that the people are human and want the same things as we have. It’s hard to get that perspective when watching the news. In fact, during my stay in town, none of the people were even talking about the war.”
Having never coached wheelchair basketball before, Markt was somewhat apprehensive about meeting the team and coordinating his first practice. He had played for the Portland Wheelblazers three years after his injury while living in Oregon and has also played for the Rollin’ Knicks since moving to New York in 2006. Although he lacked experience as a coach, he had something far greater to share with his new Afghan friends. He had defeated his disability and found an outlet to improve his quality of life.
Markt’s biggest supporters––his parents and three brothers––had helped him regain his independence after his injury. His fellow Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brothers at the University of Oregon also worked with his dad, who is a remodeler, to make their chapter house wheelchair accessible. Markt says he was lucky to have had so many people motivating him to succeed. He returned to his classes at Oregon just seven months after his accident, going on to receive a BA in English and a minor in Japanese. In some ways, the trip to Afghanistan gave him a chance to offer others the same support and encouragement he was blessed to have received.
New Friends, Old Chairs
Markt was assisted by an aspiring 22 year-old Afghan translator named Firoz. Dressed in brightly colored traditional Afghan clothing with a sparkly blazer similar to something that might have been worn by David Bowie in his heyday, Firoz would be his main line of communication. The Afghan players ranging in age from 15-45 were all eager to learn from Markt, but extremely ill-equipped, using crude three-wheeled wheelchairs designed for off road use that were very unsuited to the quick, explosive movement necessary in basketball. They did, however, have an outdoor paved court to play on, provided by the IAM physiotherapy center.
At least one of the player’s chairs would break per practice, then would be welded back together by the next day. A couple of technicians at the Center that specialized in making prosthetic limbs and other mobility devices did their best to fix everything.
Upon arriving in Maimana, Markt had brought them his sports chair with a broken axle, faintly hoping they could repair it. “The lead technician who spoke about two words of English––one which was ‘fix’––was confident. After four hours of work with nothing but a hammer, a clamp, a pipe wrench and a hand file, he had fully straightened the axle, rebuilt the moving parts inside from a large carpentry nail, and had the chair working so well that I couldn’t tell which wheel was the damaged one. It was the most impressive display of technical ingenuity and creativity I’ve ever seen.”
Markt discovered that a majority of the players were not spinal cord injured, but were living with post-polio or other disease-related syndromes, or as amputees. He had planned to focus on a variety of basketball drills and strategies during his time at the center, but was surprised to see that most of the 12man team didn’t even know how to maneuver very well in a wheelchair. Most preferred to walk with the aid of crutches or even hobble to get around when not playing basketball, rather than use a wheelchair. “Given the terrain, it was just easier to get around that way,” Markt adds. “I spent most of the first day just teaching them how to dribble and push their chairs. With their current equipment, it’s almost like someone without a disability trying to play basketball in high heels.”
Although practice was a struggle at times, he had bonded with the players beyond his expectations. “Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, it was amazing how much we had in common. The players had many of the same interests and perspectives as people I grew up with back home. They laughed, joked, and talked trash just like a group of athletes might in America. They also had a strong desire to see their country improve and were grateful to receive US and international assistance,” he says.
The Reigning Champs
Markt’s week of coaching culminated with a trip to Mazar-e Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city and home of Afghanistan’s reigning National Champions.
Mazar-e Sharif had won the first, and thus far only, Afghanistan wheelchair basketball championship a few years before. Markt heard there were only two or three total teams in the country at the time, but knew the title said something about the organization and skill of the Mazar team compared with his group of youngsters. In an e-mail to friends back home, Markt writes, “They were good. My guys played their hearts out, but between the pressure of playing their third game ever, the fact that there were over 100 people ringing the court cheering like crazy, and the vastly superior experience of the Mazar team, it wasn’t meant to be. The team was very disappointed to have lost, but everyone who had seen them play before said they made tremendous strides since their last game, so I tried to impress the importance of that progress on them after the game. The point wasn’t just to win the game, but to learn from it and continue to grow so they can win many more in the future.”
Markt was also disappointed in the loss, but for a very different reason. “I wanted these guys to feel the joy of accomplishing a major goal together, since that’s what I feel when I think about this entire experience from my own perspective. Watching them grow while my friendships with each of them strengthened over the course of the week brought a greater feeling of accomplishment than any game result ever could have. Giving awkward man hugs and saying ‘Tashakur. Khoda hafez’ (Thank you. Goodbye.) after the game was a difficult thing, but listening to their statements of appreciation and thanks for making the journey to work with them was incredibly fulfilling.”
Markt hopes to return to Afghanistan in spring 2010 to do more coaching with the Maimana team and is working with the International Red Cross, the Wheelchair Sports Federation, and other organizations to provide new sports wheelchairs to teams around the country. “New equipment will make a huge difference and it will be much easier for them to learn the fundamentals of the game.” If you would like to view a short film on Maimana, Afghanistan and the work of IAM, please visit artfullyunforgotten.com/AFGHANISTAN.html.
Tom Scott is staff editor.