Chicago Park District hosts Guatemalan wheelchair tennis player

By Brian Canever, Center for Sport, Peace, & Society August 15, 2016

The history of the Chicago Park District’s commitment to empowering people with disabilities dates back almost 50 years to when it organized the first Special Olympics in 1968. Since then, the largest and oldest park district in the United States has only strengthened its reputation as the municipal pioneer in offering recreation programs and services for people with disabilities.

Of its more than 600 accessible parks, beaches, and museums, the CPD has a combined 26 locations serving individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, as well as the Deaf or hard-of-hearing. The man currently leading this inclusion and accessibility effort is Larry Labiak, who was appointed the CPD’s disability policy officer in 2005 after a long career in communications, medical equipment sales, and as a competitor, coach and administrator in adaptive sports and recreation programs for youth and adults with disabilities.

Julio Rueda with his mentor Larry Labiak in downtown Chicago

Julio Rueda with his mentor Larry Labiak in downtown Chicago

For three weeks in the spring, Larry served as a mentor to Guatemalan wheelchair tennis player Julio Rueda as part of the GSMP: Sport for Community program to empower leaders working in the disability sport sector.

Julio is the founder of a successful software company and regularly leads empowerment workshops at schools and rehabilitation centers for people with disabilities. He is also is one of very few elite disabled athletes in Guatemala—a country of 14 million where more than 2 million people possess some kind of disability. Through his participation in Sport for Community, Julio worked on a daily basis with Larry and his team to create a comprehensive plan for developing adapted sports in Guatemala and creating a path for young people to participate in sports activities.

“Sport completely changes your life,” Julio said. “For those of us in wheelchairs, we sit all day. We need exercise and sport is a fun of way of doing it. Sport is a positive way of doing something with your life when you wake up everyday.”

Julio is not asking for anyone to follow in his footsteps. But he understands that his journey can serve as evidence of what can be done even in the most catastrophic of circumstances. After living through a car accident in 2008 that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Julio found wheelchair tennis in 2010 and is now among the top 30 quads players in the world. Sport does change lives, and he knows it intimately.

Julio is one of few elite disabled athletes in Guatemala and wants to inspire a new generation

“I sometimes think what would’ve happened to my life if I didn’t have my car accident,” Julio said. “Maybe I would’ve had a better life? Or maybe life would be as good as it is right now? I’ve learned that you have to live in the present and live your life to the fullest. That is what I do everyday whether I am working in the office or playing on the tennis court. And when I play tennis, I get to travel the world now and do what I love. I am happy.”

For his part, Larry was very moved by his time with Julio. Outside of the programs that CPD offers in Chicago and the meetings he organized for him, Larry took Julio to get a taste of high-level adapted sports at his alma mater, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, three hours south of the city. Now he hopes to see Julio recreate similar success in his context, offering his support as as a mentor and believer in his emerging leader’s undeniable motivation to create a better world.

“In many years, Julio will be old man in a rocking chair,” Larry said. “And I like to see that picture like this: at our sports tournaments the CPD always give out two medals to winners. One is for them and another is for someone who made a significant impact on their journey. I picture Julio in that rocking chair surrounded by the medals of children from Guatemala whose lives he’s changed.”

View more photos and quotes from the Center’s visit to Chicago Park District to see Julio and Larry on Facebook (link)