Zena Cole is not one to back down from a challenge.
When she contracted polio at 18 months of age, doctors said her chance of surviving were slim.
Her mother and eight siblings didn’t coddle nor shun her. Long leg braces offered her freedom until about the age of 12. “I would fall and unfortunately, the braces would break, leaving no other option but to begin life using a wheelchair,” she said.
If a playmate said she couldn’t play in a pick-up baseball game, the whole family wouldn’t play. “My mother always told me, ‘There’s nothing in your way. Where there’s a will there’s a way,’” Cole said.
|Paralympian Zena Cole is looking for votes in an online
contest in which she could win a much-needed mobility
van. (Press photo by Ken Grosjean)
In 1979, at the age of 22, Cole started participating in wheelchair sports with the Toledo Marathon Silver Streaks. She juggled the love of the sport with responsibilities as a single parent and jobs working for Goodwill Industries and the State of Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation. Because of family responsibilities, she has also been a “mother” to three nieces, two of whom are still with her in her Oregon home.
At the age of 43, Cole began suffering the effects of post-polio syndrome – a regressive condition that affects polio survivors years after the initial attack. Reluctantly, she traded in her wheelchair for a power chair. At the time she saw it as surrender. Looking back, he realizes it was the best thing for her. Everyday chores no longer sapped her strength and energy, so she could devote more time to her sports.
And she’s been successful. Cole has competed in the wheelchair games in Ohio, Michigan and South Carolina. In 2011, she went to Guadalajara and competed and won a gold medal. Since then, she has competed in the Paralympics in London and earned a bronze medal. Both medals were for discus.
Through sheer determination, she hasn’t let polio or much else for that matter, get the better of her. However, there’s one adversary that posing a formidable challenge. The 2003 van she uses is wearing out fast and it’s getting her down, rather, it’s not getting her down and that’s the problem.
Her current vehicle has an “under-the-vehicle lift” which is difficult to operate, when it works. “Sometimes it gets jammed inside the van and we can’t get it to come out,” she said.
Recently, late one night, the lift didn’t work and her girls were forced to drag a heavy treated lumber ramp to the garage, where they prop it to the van to allow Cole to get out of the vehicle. “Now we keep it in the garage in case the lift doesn’t come out,” Cole said. “The problem is this also results in the garage door not closing completely.”
A malfunction in the lift also means there are times Cole has to spend an entire day – sometimes as long seven hours – in her van. “If I have to go somewhere, I have to get in the van at 7 o’clock in the morning when the girls leave for school and I’m stuck in the van all day until it’s time to go to school to get them,” she said. “I can drive somewhere, but I can’t get out and I can’t get back in because even if I get the lift to open, it won’t come up to where I’m at.”
Instead, she passes the day working on her laptop.
“It’s not like I don’t take care of the van – I’ve put a ton of money into repairs, but it’s been a losing battle for a couple of years now,” she said. “In 2011, we had saved enough money to go to Disney World as a side trip to a national qualifying competition I was participating in in Florida, she said. “Seven major breakdowns and three major vehicle repairs later, we ended up driving past Disney World.”
Cole estimates a new van with the features she’d need would cost between $70,000 and $80,000. “And that’s not with any luxury options,” she said. “Just adaptive features like a lift, hand controls and other modifications I’d need to drive.”
An online contest could be the answer to Cole’s prayers for a safe, dependable vehicle. In honor of National Mobility Awareness Month, the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association is conducting an online contest that will provide three deserving “Local Heroes” with a wheelchair-accessible vehicle tailored to meet their needs.
Her friend Beth Henneman, of Curtice nominated Cole for the contest. “I don’t do well asking for help,” Cole said.
Cole is asking people to cast a vote for her at www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com/entrant/zena-cole-oregon-oh-3 and cast a vote for her. Visitors to the website can cast one vote daily through May 10. The top five percent of vote-getters at the conclusion of the voting period will be reviewed by an independent panel of judges that are in the mobility specialty field. Winners will be chosen May 20 and announced May 31.