CHICAGO — Aaron Holzmueller is a teenage runner who has made a name for himself at the national level, but what he wants most is a chance to compete in the Illinois High School Association championships.

Holzmueller, 17, a senior at Evanston Township High School, has cerebral palsy, a condition that affects his balance, coordination and muscular control.

Though he’s an elite runner in Paralympic competitions, he can’t keep up with his able-bodied peers, so he has asked the IHSA to create a path that would allow athletes like him to qualify for the state track meet.

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But for two years, the IHSA has said no, even after Holzmueller’s request turned into a lawsuit. This month, in what could be the final legal skirmish, the federal appellate court in Chicago heard the arguments.

Neither side would comment before the hearing, but lengthy and sometimes rancorous legal filings give a view of the dispute.

On one side, Holzmueller and his parents say that failing to give para-ambulatory track athletes — that is, athletes who have disabilities but do not use wheelchairs — their own races is discriminatory and contrary to a trend of states broadening access to high school sports.

On the other, the IHSA says it’s more important for athletes with disabilities to participate in sports alongside their able-bodied peers than to be segmented into their own category. And because Holzmueller is such an accomplished para-athlete, the organization says, granting his request would be tantamount to handing him a trophy.

“The ‘benefit’ (Holzmueller) seeks is quite clearly the opportunity to win,” the IHSA’s lawyers wrote in a legal brief.

Though the IHSA is battling on this front, it has already yielded on others. After being sued by Attorney General Lisa Madigan in 2012, the organization created championship races for swimmers with disabilities and wheelchair track athletes — changes it said were in the works before the lawsuit.

The IHSA declined to clarify why it wouldn’t make such an accommodation for para-ambulatory track athletes. But the organization’s legal arguments suggest it fears an onslaught of never-ending demands.

“Although (Holzmueller) may be satisfied with the result he achieves, students with more severe disabilities, or those with different disabilities such as dwarfism or obesity, may demand further accommodation to ensure they too receive a ‘meaningful opportunity’ to succeed,” its lawyers wrote in a brief.

“Even then, if granted, what is to stop students with various intellectual disabilities from requesting accommodations specific to their individual needs? Such a result could certainly place an undue burden upon entities such as the IHSA.”

Other states, though, have already made the change Holzmueller is seeking, and officials in those states say they have encountered no problems.

Brian Seymour, who oversees track and field for the California Interscholastic Federation, said the state formed an ambulatory division for all athletes with disabilities who can still use their legs; their disabilities run from cerebral palsy to blindness to autism.

While he understands the slippery slope argument, he said, the state hasn’t had any issues with that.

“We haven’t found in California that we’ve had people asking for something more,” he said.

The state of Washington has had a similar experience. Brian Smith, assistant executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, said the organization added an ambulatory division to its championships two years ago to get more kids involved.

Since then, he said, some have gone from nonparticipants to medalists at international competitions.

“Not only have we seen the quality of these athletes go up but it’s also a very diverse group of kids who are excited to be involved in high school sports,” Smith said.

Louisiana and Alabama also allow para-ambulatory athletes to compete at state track meets.

Philip Galli of Adaptive Track & Field USA, a rule-making and record-keeping organization for athletes with disabilities, said medical care for children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and amputated limbs has greatly improved in recent years, allowing them to develop their athletic abilities as never before.

“The population is definitely there,” he said. “We’ve also got parents and organizations now that are pushing for those athletes to be able to participate in sports.”

Holzmueller lost his case at the federal district level in July when Judge John Tharp ruled in favor of the IHSA. Tharp noted that the state track meet is highly selective — 90 percent of athletes don’t make it — and said that Holzmueller failed to prove he would have qualified if not for his disability.

The judge also drew a distinction between swimming and track, saying swimming naturally accommodates athletes with a wide range of disabilities. And para-ambulatory runners, he said, are closer to able-bodied athletes than they are to competitors who race in wheelchairs.

“In a track competition, it is hardly irrational to group those who can run separately from those who cannot,” he said.

But even as Tharp ruled in favor of the IHSA, he urged the group to reconsider Holzmueller’s request.

“As the IHSA has already recognized in some other contexts, enabling the full participation of disabled athletes alongside (as closely as possible) their able-bodied peers … will devalue the meaning of ‘state champion’ for no one,” he said.

” … (Holzmueller’s) participation in the state finals won’t diminish anyone else’s success, or highlight anyone else’s failure. It will simply give us all another reason to cheer.”

Holzmueller appealed, claiming Tharp erred in making his decision. The litigants recently argued their cases before a three-judge panel, which will issue a written opinion. Any further appeal would have to be accepted by the full appellate panel or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Illinois’ track and field championships begin May 24, 2018.

© 2017 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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