State

Modesto Special Olympian is determined and defiant

They call it the 10-meter assisted walk.

Assisted? Heather Fraze wants none of that. Twice during state Special Olympics competitions, the spirited Modesto woman abandoned her walker and hoofed it. Each time, officials disqualified her.

Rules. Those doggone rules. Competitors must use a walker, a walking chair, crutches or even a cane. Apparently, feet alone don't assist you in walking.

Is it easier for her to use a walking aid? Certainly. But the 43-year-old never takes the easy route in anything. It's just not her way. Cerebral palsy dealt her a number of challenges, and she attacks them head-on.

Heather is proud of the fact she can walk — albeit very, very slowly. Occasional falls don't deter her at all. She gets up, teeters a bit, steadies herself and keeps going. And that's how she wants to compete, rules or no rules, even if it costs her a medal here and there.

Shortly after she was born, doctors told her mother, Nikki Larsen, that Heather would never walk.

Ever.

Blowing away predictions

The first glimpse of determination and defiance, though, came when she was a few years old. She pulled herself up on a walker and began walking, blowing that theory to smithereens.

She used crutches until breaking her foot, which turned out to be a blessing, her mom said. It put her into a wheelchair, which, in turn, forced Heather to better develop the use of her hands. When the foot healed and she returned to the walker, Heather's mom noticed another change.

"She didn't need to think about where she put her feet anymore," Larsen said. "Intellectually, it has helped her."

Heather now uses a type of walker that also serves as a chair, complete with hand brakes — except, of course, when she decides she doesn't need it during a competition.

She attended John F. Kennedy School in south Modesto, where Saturday's countywide Special Olympics will be held. For the past 23 years, she's been competing in Special Olympics events including the softball throw, the broad jump and the 10-meter assisted walk.

She takes the games seriously, rising at 5:30 each morning to train.

"Her choice," Larsen said. "I don't have to get her up."

Heather begins her workouts on the elliptical machine, then lifting hand-held weights before climbing aboard the treadmill.

"It helps me focus," Heather said.

On the track, it can take her several minutes to walk a few meters. Each step is a battle to stay balanced but also represents a victory over her disabilities. So while the 10-meter assisted walk is the shortest distance event in the Special Olympics, her mom and coaches — John Wray, Joanne Azevedo and Brianna Bennett — hated to see her determination to walk punished by the rules that require assistance.

At the state meet in 1996, they reminded her of what would happen if she ditched her walker.

"We gave her the choice of not going the 10 meters and not using a walker, and she agreed to (use it) knowing she'd get DQ'd," said Wray, area director of Stanislaus County Special Olympics. " 'But to hell with that!' She (discarded) it anyway."

They disqualified her.

The by-the-book types typically protest. The Special Olympics purists who appreciate the energy, effort and emotions expended applaud her, Wray said.

"I get a lot of grief from people who run other meets because she doesn't fit into their rules," Wray said. "Everybody else is inspired by her."

So Wray cut a deal with officials at the state meets: She can walk the first five meters on her own. She must use her walker the rest of the way.

Agreed. She took home a gold medal in the event during last year's state meet at the University of California at Davis.

Heather did it her way — the harder way — half of the way. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I like being independent," she said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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