Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports Program

December 02, 2014
Bennett helps athletes with disabilities get off the sidelines and into the game
Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports Program

Did you know that Kennedy Krieger has a wheelchair tennis team, a basketball team, and an ice hockey team? Some 20 sports make up the Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports Program at Kennedy Krieger, and directors Gerry and Gwena Herman expect the program to grow even more with the recent addition of a new adaptive sports park at the Greenspring campus.

Any child with a physical challenge can participate in the sports program, not just patients or former patients of Kennedy Krieger. In fact, most participants are not patients. Kids with physical challenges come from up to three hours away on a weekly basis to participate on the Bennett teams. The program plans to expand to adults in the next year, and will work with the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) to become a Paralympic Sport Club. The ICSCI brings experience in adult quad rugby, handcycling, and wheelchair lacrosse, and the sports program will add adult sled hockey and wheelchair tennis.

“By virtue of Gwena and Gerry Herman's devotion and dedication, individuals with disabilities in the Mid-Atlantic region can now pursue dreams that were never before possible. Whereas previously they might have watched theur sports heroes on TV, now they are the ones competing."

–Dr. Charles E. Silberstein

Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports ProgramThe Bennett Institute was founded in 1989 by Kennedy Krieger physician and former Baltimore Orioles doctor Charles (Chick) Silberstein, who recruited the Hermans to run the program. It started with four children and focused mainly on motor development. The program rapidly expanded and now serves more than 100 children a week, ages 2 to 21.

Bennett Institute Physically Challenged Sports ProgramFor individuals with disabilities, participating in sports not only builds self-esteem, teamwork, and goal setting, but also serves as a great motivator to learn independence. In order to be on the ice hockey team, for example, players must be able to dress themselves. “For some of the kids it’s a major obstacle to overcome,” explains Gerry Herman. “Because they do a fair amount of traveling without parents, they are responsible for their own equipment. That means attaching a golf bag with equipment to the back of their wheelchair and pulling it through the airport and to the rink.”

Over the years, several of their athletes have gone on to become professional athletes who make a living wheelchair racing. Tatyana McFadden, who started at Bennett when she was 6, has won all four major marathons—no one able-bodied or disabled has ever done that. Seven of Bennett’s athletes have gone on to compete in the Paralympics.

“That shows that our approach is working,” says Gerry Herman. “Kids learn that if they have the skill and the desire, they can get there.”

But the program isn’t just about competing at the highest level. For many, it’s about having fun, making friends, and being part of a team, Herman says. “We provide a continuum from learning a sport all the way up to national and international competition so that every kid has a goal to reach for.”