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 “Tin Soldiers” Movie Spotlights Incredible Athletes with Disabilities


Editor’s Note: In a new film that’s due to come out in a few weeks titled “Tin Soldiers” by Ben Duffy & Michael J. Sassano Productions, you’ll meet some incredible athletes who also happen to have disabilities.  Wheel:Life sat down with the film’s director Ben Duffy to capture his perspective on the film’s impact.

My first film was “We are Skateboarders,” and I’ve done three others. I met a fellow who was holding clinics for people in wheelchairs and amputees to learn how to ride skateboards. Matt Hawkins sent me a message on Facebook and asked, “Ben, how would you like to make a documentary film on people in wheelchairs and amputees learning how to skateboard?” I wrote back that I was all about it. Once I got involved in making this film, Matt Hawkins became the associate producer, and he’s one of the subjects of the film. Matt had lost his leg in a car accident.

See the film’s preview trailer below:

Tin Soldiers OFFICIAL TRAILER from Ben Duffy Presents on Vimeo.


I’ve been a skateboarder half my life, and at that time that Matt approached me, I was going through some difficult problems. When I first heard about this project of helping people learn how to ride skateboards, who previously only had ridden wheelchairs and used prosthetics, I pulled myself out of the muck and mire of my own issues.

I wanted to help promote and document how people with physical challenges were not only overcoming their problems but were actually performing unbelievable athletic feats.

Not every day do you see a person who’s lost a limb skateboarding at a skateboard park and doing all kind of amazing tricks, nor do you see people in wheelchairs throwing the same tricks that professional skateboarders accomplish. I wondered where the courage came from for these people to start participating in these types of athletic events. More importantly, I wanted to know how and why they could push themselves to accomplish goals that other people rarely, if ever, accomplished.

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I had made some documentaries in the past that were somewhat humanitarian. I assumed that this project to produce “Tin Soldiers” would provide another opportunity to do another humanitarian film that would help inspire people to become more than they ever thought they could. I believed when we started, and I’m even more certain now that the filming’s ended, that “Tin Soldiers” has the ability to affect many types of people in very positive ways.

5 Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 3.59.22 AMAs we progressed, Matt met Jeff Bourns, who became the executive producer of “Tin Soldiers.” Bourns told me he had many more people for me to meet who were exceptional athletes in other sports. He explained that the film didn’t have to be just about amputees who skateboarded and people in wheelchairs who competed in wheelchair motocross.

We were introduced to a CrossFit coach and powerlifter named Zack Ruhl. A year later the godmother of one of the subjects of the film told me, “Ben, I have a friend named Alana Nichols who’s a four time Paralympic medalist. She’s won a gold and a silver medal in wheelchair basketball and a gold and a silver medal in Alpine skiing. She’s been on Conan O’Brien’s TV show; and she’s sponsored by Nike, AT&T and Citibank, just to name a few.” Alana Nichols balanced out the film and helped to show a broader side of what elite people with disabilities have done and can do.

What Is a Tin Soldier?

One of my favorite songs by Small Faces, with Rod Stewart as the lead singer, is titled “Tin Soldier,” and I love that name. The name also speaks to what our movie is all about, because when I look at the word soldiers, I identify with people who have disabilities.

I believe the people in our film are true soldiers – fighting every day for their independence, their freedom and their ability to perform at the highest level of sports.

The word “tin” is emblematic of these people’s wheelchairs and prosthetics. When I’ve put those two concepts together, I view these people as tin soldiers who are fighting not only to become the best they can be, but also daily fighting for their freedom and independence.

We began filming the “Tin Soldiers” movie in June, 2014, and finished editing the film during the last week of December, 2015. We first thought about making the film in April, 2014.

I believe that we all have situations in life where we’ve lost something. At that time we can make one of two decisions – either become depressed and stay depressed or determine to be an overcomer.

When individuals see the people in “Tin Soldiers,” they quickly and easily can see and understand that yes, they have lost something – perhaps function or limbs. However, instead of saying, “Woe is me,” and living in a depressed world, they deliberately have made the decisions not only to overcome what they’ve lost but also to achieve far greater and much more than anyone ever has thought they can. They have become the great athletes they are today, and they positively impact everyone they’re around and everyone who knows them or knows about them.

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The people in this film are incredibly inspiring! I want the people who watch this movie to use this film to help overcome any hardship that they may be 11Ben Duffyexperiencing. Hopefully people in rehab centers who’ve experienced terrible tragedies and worry about how they’ll function and get through this world being in a wheelchair or missing limbs will see “Tin Soldiers.”

We want them to believe that not only will they make it in this life without what they’ve lost, but they can make it and become highly successful individuals – just like the people we feature in “Tin Soldiers.” Our movie is not simply a movie to entertain – it’s meant to be a helping hand and an inspiring, encouraging realization of what’s possible for people with disabilities and how they can go further and faster and achieve more than they’ve ever dreamed possible.

At this writing, at the first part of 2016, we’ve just completed the editing process of the program and are raising funds to take the film to film festivals and to help market the film. We’re hoping to get “Tin Soldiers” on Netflix to make it easily available for anyone to see.

We’re developing even more distribution channels to make the film as widely viewed as possible too. We have the trailer for the movie on our website (http://www.weareskateboarders.com), and we’ll keep you updated on when and where the video will be available for viewing.

Who Are The Stars in “Tin Soldier”?

 Zack Ruhl – “I’m 26 years old and was born with a birth deformity that led to my having both legs amputated at the age of 2,” Ruhl explains. “Despite having no legs, I have lived my life to the fullest. I started weightlifting in high school as part of my commitment to football and experienced love at first lift. I have bench pressed 415 pounds. I never looked back, getting stronger every day since. As my skill set increased, so did my competitive nature. I worked harder every day to keep my high ranking in the fieldhouse charts. From playing varsity football at a Texas high school to winning a professional arm wrestling meet, I’ve managed to have success in the competitive arena as well. I’ve opened up my own personal training studio called DNA Athletics with my good friend David Pullen and can’t be happier doing what I love.

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“I first started doing CrossFit about a year ago. I originally saw the CrossFit competitions on ESPN and thought to myself, ‘Dang, that seems legit.’ I immediately checked out http://www.crossfitjournal.com and began doing the WODs (Workout of the Day) they posted.

If I ever came across a workout I couldn’t do, I simply modified it to fit me.

The first workout I did was called Fran, which was a couplet of barbell thrusters. Instead of doing Thrusters (using a barbell with the bar resting against the front of your shoulders and dropping into a full squat position), I performed strict form shoulder presses and totally gassed out. Even though doing Fran almost killed me, I began modifying my workouts to more of a CrossFit style and shied away from the more traditional ‘body builder’ workouts. I’ve seen good results.”

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Abel Rose – Abel was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus along with other medical conditions. Abel, a.k.a. That Fearless Kid, is a jack of all trades – whether he’s flying down ramps or surfing California waters. The list of sports he chooses to play gets longer every year: WCMX (adaptive skateboarding), T-ball, golf, surfing, track, soccer, bocce ball and many more.

His love and drive for sports is amazing to watch as it grows. At only 3 years old, he already has accomplished so much by becoming the youngest sponsored athlete at only 18 months old, but his life is amazing all on its own. 

2Ben Duffy* Alana Nichols – Alana Jane Nichols, born in 1983, is a Paralympic wheelchair basketball player and alpine skier. While growing up in Farmington in New Mexico, Nichols spent winters snowboarding in Colorado. During one snowboarding trip in 2000, she attempted a back flip but over-rotated and landed back-first on a rock. The subsequent injury left her paralyzed from the waist down.

In 2002, Nichols was introduced to wheelchair basketball, quickly excelled at the sport, and she received a scholarship to play with the University of Arizona, where she studied education. After serving as an alternate for the U.S. women’s team at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens, she was named to the national team in 2005 and helped the team win a silver medal in the 2006 Wheelchair Basketball World Championship.

She later attended graduate school at the University of Alabama, graduating with a master’s degree in kinesiology. Her Paralympic debut came in 2008 when, as part of the U.S. women’s team, she won a gold medal in wheelchair basketball at the Beijing games.

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One month after the Beijing Paralympics, Nichols moved from Alabama to Colorado to begin training in alpine skiing. She had tried adaptive skiing in 2002, but at the time had chosen to focus on basketball instead. After watching the skiing events at the 2006 Winter Paralympics and learning of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) (www.nscd.org) in Winter Park, Colorado, she decided to pursue the sport as soon as the 2008 Summer Paralympics were completed.

She began practicing with the NSCD program and showed quick improvement. Her first win came in February 2009 when she beat Paralympic gold medalist Laurie Stephens to take first in the Super-G at a North American Cup event in Kimberley, British Columbia. She won the downhill event and placed third in the super combined at the U.S. Adaptive Nationals later that year.

In March, 2010, she completed her first IPC Alpine World Cup season with a first place in the downhill, second in super combined and third in Super-G. Later she competed in the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where she won two gold medals, a silver medal and a bronze medal. She placed first in the downhill and the giant slalom, second in the Super-G and third in the super combined. Nichols is the first American woman with gold medals in the summer and the winter games.

Quinn Waitley – Quinn Waitley is a 20-year-old from Coronado, California, who believes the purpose of sunrise is to push back the dark. She is in classes at San Diego City College and looking forward to her chosen career. When not studying or working out, she skateboards and surfs and tries to help others. None of this makes her stand out, particularly, “So I needed another angle,” she says.

She is quadriplegic. In her words, “I’m in a wheelchair full time. I can’t walk without assistance.” However, she adds spunkily, “I’m a high functioning quadriplegic.” Quinn was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which is broadly explained as fetal brain damage during pregnancy that results in abnormal muscle, speech and possibly thinking development. Quinn entered this world in the 28th week, about the size of a newborn puppy – 1 pound, 12 ounces. She was a quadruplet, one of four girls conceived au naturale, without in-vitro assistance. All survived, courtesy of modern obstetrics.

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For more information about this film, contact Ben Duffy at: benduffypresents@gmail.com

The link to the film’s trailer is at https://vimeo.com/148156551. For more information visit www.weareskateboarders.com.

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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.

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