Paralympic athlete Erik Hightower was born with spina bifida, but his family never cut him any slack , he says. They introduced him to wheelchair racing when he was 9, and today he's one of the top five athletes in the world in his racing class. Timken engineers have helped him by designing special bearings for his wheelchair.
The gritty intensity that drives Erik Hightower when he goes for the gold during Paralympic wheelchair races is in sharp contrast to his persona in a casual setting.
Articulate, friendly and unassuming best describe the 23-year-old Glendale, Ariz., native off the track.
Hightower was born with spina bifida, a birth defect resulting in an incomplete closure of the spinal cord. Neither his parents nor an older brother, he said with a grin, cut him slack.
When he was 9, they introduced him to wheelchair racing. The boy didn’t take the bait.
“The first three years, I hated it,” he said hours before a Saturday videotaping at the Timken Co. “I threw gloves, my helmet. They tried to bribe me with animals. Then something clicked in my head.”
Today, the clean-cut young man, with pierced ears and a right-bicep tattoo of a wheelchair with flames coming off the wheels, is one of the top five athletes in the world in his racing class.
Two weeks after the close of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, Hightower and his team, Arizona Heat, arrived there to compete in the same venues in the International Paralympics. He competed in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races and the 4x100 and 4x400 meter relays.
“I didn’t medal,” he said. “But I did set my personal best. Now I’m looking forward to the next Olympics in 2012 in London.”
His connection to Canton evolved because his father, Richard Hightower III, a Honeywell Aerospace engineer, visited Timken’s New Hampshire plant on business. There, he shared Erik’s challenges and goals. With the senior Hightower’s assistance, Timken engineers set about redesigning the bearings in Erik’s wheelchair to enhance his speed.
They were successful. First testing a chair with the old-style bearings, then a second with the quarter-sized, Timken-designed bearings, Hightower said he easily could tell the difference.
The aluminum-framed chair is six feet long and easily can be hoisted overhead with one hand by Hightower. It weighs a mere 17 pounds. The two rear carbon-fiber wheels are 26 inches in diameter and the smaller front wheel is 18 inches across. Heavy leather, mittenlike gloves protect his hands as he pumps the wheels, leaning ever forward to decrease wind resistance.
A lean 125 pounds, he said he is beginning a program of moderate weight training for the season, which runs March through October.
Bulking up, he explained, is not the goal. On a downhill course, he has reached speeds of 55 miles per hour. A heavier competitor would make stopping even more of a challenge. Stopping, however, is the last thing on his mind. Hightower recently covered 100 meters in 14.9 seconds.
The Canton visit, he said, provided an opportunity to spend time with his mother, Debra Hightower, now a Cincinnati resident.
Page 2 of 2 - “We recently made a deal,” he said, surveying Ohio’s snowy landscape. “I’ll go there for Thanksgiving and she’ll come to Arizona for Christmas.”
WHAT IS SPINA BIFIDA?
Spina bifida is the most common disabling birth defect in the United States. It is a type of neural tube defect, which is a problem with the spinal cord or its coverings. It happens when the fetal spinal column doesn’t close completely during the first month of pregnancy.
There usually is nerve damage that causes at least some paralysis of the legs. Many people with spina bifida will need assistive devices such as braces, crutches or wheelchairs. They may have learning difficulties, urinary and bowel problems or hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain.
There is no cure. Treatments focus on the complications and can include surgery, medicine and physiotherapy.
Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke