Minnesota wheelchair racer files discrimination lawsuit

Cameron Smith

The family of a disabled athlete in Minnesota has filed charges of discrimination despite the state's progressive attempts to include wheelchair athletes in track and field meets. Citing the Minnesota Human Rights Act, it claims that because points from disabled events don't count toward official team totals and because wheelchair athletes aren't allowed to compete against other athletes on the track, those disabled competitors are being treated as "second-class athletes."

Minnesota wheelchair athlete Rose Hollermann
Minnesota wheelchair athlete Rose Hollermann

As first reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rose Hollermann, a sophomore for Waterville-Elysian-Morristown (Minn.) High was one of the six wheelchair athletes to compete in Minnesota State High School League track and field meets during the 2011 season. She eventually captured the 800-meter and 1600-meter state titles for wheelchair racing, but was disappointed that she was not allowed to compete with other athletes on the track.

Court documents show that Hollermann was allowed to compete against other runners in three of her first four meets on her team's eight-meet schedule, with all future official state meets banning on-track competition. The Star Tribune reported that she has also competed in such "mixed races" which involve both able bodied and wheelchair racers during junior high track and field, with no injuries resulting from her participation.

At the root of the Hollermann's civil rights suit against the MSHSL is Rose Hollermann's drive for real competition on the track. The family's lawyer, Justin Page, made it clear that his client wanted to make sure her efforts were fairly recognized and accounted for, and that she wasn't forcing a meet to have to make special concessions just to allow her to compete, as doing so would essentially call her out as different than other athletes.

"[Rose] not only likes the sense of competition, she doesn't want to add unnecessary length to a meet just for her to compete alone," Page told the Star Tribune.

There's a good reason for that competitive drive: Hollermann may be one of the more accomplished young wheelchair athletes in the country. A star on the basketball court as well as the track, Hollermann was the youngest member of the United States U-25 wheelchair basketball team that competed in the 2011 U-25 women's world championships in Canada.

Meanwhile, MSHSL continues to take efforts to try and add more wheelchair events, all in an effort to accommodate more disabled athletes. At an organizational meeting last week the state governing body added three more official events for the 2012 season -- the 100 meter, 3,200 meter and discus -- and gave indications that "direct competition," which would allow athletes to compete on the track at the same time, could be discussed in February and, potentially, implemented for the 2012 season.

"We're working to accommodate everyone safely," MSHSL executive director Dave Stead told the Star Tribune.

Still, Stead gave no indication that the scores from wheelchair athletes' events would become a part of team sports, as they are in some cases in Maryland (Minnesota and Maryland are two of just 11 states that currently have official wheelchair events in track and field competitions). Until that happens, it's likely that Hollermann's suit will remain in effect, hoping to speed up even more change for disabled athletes in the upper Midwest.

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