Marty Ball: Lifelong Warrior for Better Wheelchairs & Wheelchair Sports
Editor’s Note: Seventy-eight year old Marty Ball of Fort Myers, Florida, has been an active participant in wheelchair sports, the development of better wheelchairs for wheelchair sports and many of the social changes that have taken place for people with disabilities. He has also served as a mentor for thousands. In 1999, Ball helped start TiLite. Take a journey with us below through some of the highlights of Marty’s lifelong fight for better wheelchairs and better access to the world for wheelchair users.
Although I had competed in many different marathons during my life, the New York City Marathon was the most memorable, and the marathon I feared the most. For many years, the New York City Marathon didn’t allow wheelchair athletes to compete with the other athletes.
Back in 1979, when I was in my early 40s, a group of us filed suit and went to court to win the opportunity for wheelchair athletes to compete in the NYC Marathon.
Back then, the law said that anyone in a wheelchair could have access to any type of street, road or event that able-bodied people had access to, but the officials of the NYC Marathon decided that allowing wheelchair athletes to compete at the same time as able-bodied athletes wouldn’t be safe. Their position was that if you had wheelchair athletes and able-bodied athletes competing in the marathon at the same time, the course wouldn’t be safe for either type of athlete.
I entered the NYC Marathon as Guilermo Jerez, instead of my real name, Marty Ball, since I was well-known and very outspoken among runners in New York State, because I had competed in so many races.
Talk was going around about the wheelchair racers that they possibly might be tipped over and/or thrown off the bridges. Once the race started, I was concerned about my safety. Only a few wheelchair athletes were in that first race. To compete in that race, I had built my own special wheelchair. The race started in Staten Island and went over the 2 mile long Verrazano Bridge. I was most concerned about what would happen to me on the bridge. After we went across the bridge, the race touched every borough of New York. Rolling that marathon was a fantastic way to see the city.
The officials of the race didn’t really know where to put the wheelchair athletes. They were concerned that if they started the wheelchair competitors with the elite men, someone might get hurt. So, they started us with the elite women. The men were on one side of the bridge, and the women and the wheelchair athletes were on the other side of the bridge.
A divider was down the middle to keep the two groups separated. At the start of the race, I was moving pretty fast going up the bridge, and coming down the bridge I was flying. I got out in front of the lead women on my side of the bridge. A press truck with reporters, TV cameras and members of the press from all over the country were in front of me. I was going so fast coming off the top of that bridge that I passed the press truck.
The police officers were attempting to clear traffic ahead of the racers. A police officer on a motorcycle pulled up beside my wheelchair and said, “Hey! You’ve got to slow down. We still have a lot of traffic out here.” I looked at him and answered, “Slow down! No, sir. This is a race!” After the policeman left, I spotted an opening in the divider between the men’s side of the course and the women’s side of the course. I turned, went through the divider and got on the men’s side of the course. The men had spread out enough along the course that I could roll along without interfering with anyone else in the race.
During the first portion of the race, I was rolling along with a lady in a wheelchair. We discussed the possibility of some of the racers creating an incident, so wheelchair athletes couldn’t compete in the NYC Marathon again. The marathoners then could say, “I told you so. Allowing wheelchair athletes to compete with us won’t create a safe environment for the able-bodied athletes or the wheelchair athletes.”
“I finished the race in first place for wheelchair athletes, but I was completely ignored by the race officials.
I wasn’t invited to the awards stand, and I didn’t receive any type of trophy or medal. However, many press people wanted to talk to me, interview me and shoot pictures of me. When I crossed that finish line, I became so emotional I started to cry – not because I’d won the race, but because I’d competed in a race where wheelchair athletes weren’t wanted. I knew I had opened the door for myself and other wheelchair athletes. After that first NYC Marathon, I competed in four more, and I watched the number of wheelchair marathoners grow year after year.
Marty’s Childhood with Polio
From the age of 5, I had a deep passion for all kinds of sports. I wanted to grow up and be a professional athlete. We lived in New Jersey back then, and my dad took me to professional baseball games with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. Like so many youngsters in that era, my dream was to become a professional baseball player.
Then when I was 8, I was diagnosed with polio. At this time, the Salk vaccine hadn’t been discovered. I was in the hospital for 3 years but fortunately not in an iron lung. However, my best friend during my hospital stay was in an iron lung. He passed away one night in his sleep, which touched me deeply. I knew I wanted to try to make things better for people like my friend who had died.
While I was in the hospital, when the nurses threatened to punish me for misbehaving, I’d get in my wheelchair, roll as fast as I could to an elevator, go down three or four stories and jam my wheelchair in the doors of the elevator to keep it from going up or down. Next, I’d crawl to another wheelchair and escape. So, the need for speed was very important to me, even at such an early age.
“When my dad decided that my mother was letting me get away with too much stuff, he sent me to Blair Academy in north New Jersey (a prep school) and required me to live on campus,” Ball remembers.
Marty Ball’s Sports and Racing Career
When I was 19, I heard about a wheelchair basketball game to be played at the halftime of a college basketball game. My friend, Bob Lionetti, loved sports like I did, and said, “Let’s go to the game, and see about this wheelchair basketball.” After we watched the wheelchair basketball game, we were invited into the locker room and met the coach of the wheelchair basketball team, Al Youakim. Coach Youakim asked, “Would you guys like to play basketball? We were thinking about starting a junior wheelchair basketball team.” I thought, “Wow! There’s a sport I can play in a wheelchair.” So in 1958, I started playing for the New Jersey Junior Wheelers in Hackensack, New Jersey.
The only wheelchairs we had back then were steel hospital wheelchairs that weighed about 25-50 pounds, weren’t adjustable and came in only three sizes – small, medium and large. I played wheelchair basketball for about 25 years and was constantly trying to change the wheelchairs we used to make them lighter, faster, more maneuverable and more comfortable.
First, I modified the wheelchairs to make them perform better by changing the center of gravity and using hub wheels to gain a slight advantage.
Back then, we were bound by rules by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association as to what type modifications we could make to our wheelchairs. The rules stated that we only could play basketball in standard wheelchairs, however, we kept pushing the rules, until we were allowed to develop add-ons to the standard wheelchairs to make them better for playing basketball.
Finally, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, people realized that if wheelchair athletes made modifications to the wheelchairs they used to play basketball, we might be able to develop better wheelchairs for the general public. By that time, we had started to have track meets too, held in parking lots. Since I loved sports – all kinds of sports – I continued to play basketball and competed in track. Colleges and universities began to field wheelchair track teams. The National Wheelchair Athletic Association, now known as Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports, USA, was founded in 1956 and held games sponsored by the Bulova Watch Company in Long Island, New York, in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair track and other wheelchair sports at Bulova Park.
Although I liked basketball, I’d fallen in love with racing my wheelchair.
We had two sprints – the 60 yard dash and the 100 yard dash. We also had relays, but we didn’t have distance races. A group of us wanted to have a 200 yard race and a 400 yard race. However, back then, parking lots weren’t that long. This idea burned into the hearts and souls of the early wheelchair racers.
In the late 1970s, we finally started having track meets on measured tracks and competed on the same tracks where able-bodied athletes competed. At about that time, the games moved from Bulova Park to colleges and universities where we had lined, marked and measured tracks, competed in regional track meets and basketball games, and if we were good enough, national meets and games.
At that time, money was being raised. People realized that athletes in wheelchairs should have opportunities to compete against other athletes in wheelchairs in a variety of sports. As more and more distance races were added to track meets for people with disabilities, I liked the longer distance races and got hooked especially on road races that included marathons.
I finally rolled 67 different marathons all over the world and won many of them. Although I placed in the top 10 in several Boston Marathons, if I had to pick one race that I was the most proud of having competed in, it would have to be that first NYC Marathon.
The Evolution of Better Wheelchairs
All the way through my sports career, I kept working on building and customizing wheelchairs to make them better, more comfortable, faster, lighter and more portable and to fit more different types of bodies. When I got into racing, I thought, “A limousine can go faster than a regular car, mainly because it’s longer than a regular car. So, if I make my racing wheelchair longer, it should go faster.”
I put big wheels on the back and casters on the front of my wheelchair. I studied and learned that someone in a wheelchair put his/her center of gravity right under his body, instead of having the center of gravity at the back of the wheelchair. I could lean back enough to get the front casters of my wheelchair off the ground but didn’t need those casters to steer. I just needed to get the wheelchair up to go around corners. I also learned that I could make a wide, sweeping turn instead of making a tight turn. I started changing my wheelchairs by putting larger wheels on their fronts that I didn’t use for steering.
“I was really interested then, and I still am today, in making myself a wheelchair that would go as fast as a bicycle could go.
However, racing wheelchairs were not allowed to have racing gears like a racing bicycle had. I decided to look at the handrails on wheelchairs as gears, and I learned that the size of the handrail played a major role in how fast you could push the wheelchair. I studied biomechanics and learned that the length of the competitor’s arm, the length of his/her torso and the size of the hand rim all could affect the speed of the racing wheelchair and the amount of effort that the racer had to expend to go faster. I learned that for racers’ wheelchairs to be as fast as possible, those wheelchairs had to be custom-made.
After I made modifications to my wheelchair, a wheelchair dealer from upstate New York, Joe Bahnatka, offered me a job working for his company – Med Care Convalescent Supply. Joe was a road runner also, and we became friends. I explained to Joe that my racing wheelchair wasn’t anything like the standard wheelchairs that he was selling. Joe told me he wanted to learn more about racing wheelchairs.
“One of the wheelchair manufacturers I buy wheelchairs from just created a racing wheelchair. I’d like for you to evaluate it before I start buying them,” he said. Joe got a sample of this first commercial racing wheelchair. The first thing I noticed about this chair was that it had small push-pull pins that allowed the competitor to quickly and easily take the chair apart.
At that time, a racing wheelchair was long, wouldn’t fit in a car and had to be disassembled to carry it to races. The push-pull pins made this chore quicker and easier. Wheelchair companies recognized that sports were becoming very important to people in wheelchairs, and more and more companies started producing racing wheelchairs and specialty wheelchairs for basketball and other wheelchair sports.
Marty Ball Speaks: 2013 National Veteran’s Wheelchair Games
That first racing wheelchair was more or less a beginner’s wheelchair that a person could buy and use to compete in road racing. However, I saw that numbers of modifications needed to be made to make the wheelchair really competitive for an athlete. This company used some of my modifications and incorporated them into the design of their sports wheelchairs. Since Joe also wanted to sell other types of wheelchairs, he asked me to evaluate wheelchairs from various companies and suggest wheelchairs he could buy and resell. At that time, a lighter, more comfortable wheelchair was being manufactured by Quadra. The president of this company was an athlete and built wheelchairs from materials from the space industry. Joe added the Quadra wheelchair to his line, and I demonstrated the wheelchair in many rehabilitation hospitals. Those chairs caught on like wildfire.
The next company to start selling these lighter, more maneuverable wheelchairs was a company called Quickie with wheelchairs designed and built by Motion Designs. I went to work with the Quickie Wheelchairs and then Motion Designs. As wheelchair technology advanced, I suggested several changes to improve the Quickie wheelchairs, and I traveled all over the world demonstrating and marketing them. Then the Quickie Company was bought by Sunrise Medical.
With the many improvements in the design and manufacturing of wheelchairs, I moved from company to company, until TiLite gave me the opportunity to help start a company with Allen Ludovici, Jim Knaub and Jim Allen. David Lippes, a very successful businessman, funded the company. Our main goal was to make the TiLite wheelchairs custom wheelchairs built for specific individuals, their body types, their arm lengths and other considerations to provide comfortable and practical wheelchairs that included features we’d learned about from road racing. The name TiLite came from the word titanium, because titanium was such a light, strong material. David Lippes already had a company building products out of titanium. I retired from TiLite in 2013, but I freelanced as an ambassador for some time after that. TiLite later was bought by Permobil – a power wheelchair company from Sweden.
The Importance of Mentoring
Over the years, I’ve probably mentored 1,000 young people. Often, I’m asked, “Marty, why do you mentor young people?” As a competitor, I’ve always wanted to have people chasing me to force me to do better. So, I try to give young people, other competitors and companies as much information as I think they can handle about what I do, what I’ve done, and what I’ve learned.
I’ve always shared information with people all my life, because people older and more experienced than me have shared information with me to help me become better.
I’ve always remembered how good it’s made me feel when someone has given me a suggestion or a tip that has helped make me and my equipment better and faster. They’ve made my life better than it has been before they’ve shared their advice with me. I enjoy trying to do good for other people, because this is the person I am. Besides, the wheelchair industry is about the people who need better wheelchairs more than it is about the products we sell.
In a recent interview with Mobility Management magazine, Marty said, “It puzzles me that during rehabilitation, a person who had an amputation and receives a new prosthetic limb gets training daily on how to walk on that limb… but someone who will be a full-time wheelchair user seldom receives that same daily instruction on how to use this device. Even cane and crutch ambulators get more training than wheelchair users get.” See full interview here.
Marty Predicts the Future of Wheelchairs
I can’t let the cat out of the bag, but new wheelchairs are coming to the market that are extremely light, much more collapsible, much more comfortable and much more serviceable for people in wheelchairs. In the future, a new generation of lightweight, durable wheelchairs will come to the market that help people become more independent as they roll, and I can’t wait to see it!
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.