Cheerleader on wheels


A car accident changed Sharon VanWinkel’s life forever. Today, she changes other people’s lives by helping physically challenged people succeed at sports.

In the lobby of Courage Center in Golden Valley, Sharon VanWinkel is all smiles. On this particular day she is talking to Calvin, a man in his 20s who uses a wheelchair. VanWinkel is encouraging Calvin to sign up to play on the basketball and softball teams.

“They would love to have you,” she said. “You have a good attitude and you look like a strong young man.” Becoming differently abled is a life-changing event and a struggle for those who must face it. It opened VanWinkel’s eyes to a whole new world and led her to a career she loves. Today, she is the director of sports and recreation at Courage Center. She finds joy in helping people who are often discouraged find confidence and success in sports.

“I have the best job in the world,” VanWinkel said. “It’s a crazy job but it’s the best job in the world. There are a lot of people who would give their right arm to be in this position.”

Life-changing accident

In 1970, at the age of 21, VanWinkel was injured in a car accident. She is now a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. “Most times when people have an instant injury, they think their lives are over,” she said. VanWinkel’s injury turned her life in whole new direction.

“In 1975 I got a call from Courage Center asking me to join a women’s wheelchair basketball team that they were organizing,” she said.

She said she felt she had transitioned into “normal living” pretty well after the accident, and didn’t feel it necessary to get involved with other people with disabilities. She was married and had a child.

“I thought, well I’ll go out for the team because I want meet other women and find out how they’re doing regular tasks of life,” she said. “Because being in a wheelchair is very challenging. As it turned out, none of them were independent.

“As a group, we learned together and we started experiencing success,” she said, “whether that is being able to push your chair for 10 minutes at a time and building up endurance or strength, or learning how to work together on the basketball court.”

In addition, VanWinkel started training seriously for wheelchair racing. She became an accomplished racer who has completed 19 marathons and won many including the Boston Marathon. She also competed with the USA Paralympic basketball team.

“With each one of those successes, it gave me a boost of enthusiasm to say, ‘I need to share this with other people,'” she said. “Other people with disabilities need to know that they can go far beyond their expectations.”

Career shift

After her accident, VanWinkel was not able to go back to her job as a computer programmer. The company she worked for would not take her back in that position because she couldn’t walk, “which is utterly ridiculous,” she said.

“The way that we were thinking in 1970 was that people with disabilities weren’t capable of doing anything, even things that we were trained for,” she said.

The company she worked for did, however, participate in an executive loan program; VanWinkel was loaned to a start-up agency that taught sports for people with disabilities.

“Back in those days they wanted people with disabilities to not be seen and not be heard,” she said. “And that’s not my personality. I’m no different than I was when I was up walking on my two feet, except that I think I’ve got some great insights into life now.” Working in the new field came naturally for VanWinkel because of her experience playing basketball and racing.

“Just naturally, I would try and get other people with disabilities to get involved in the stuff that I was involved in and let them know what an incredible opportunity sports was for them if they wanted it,” she said.

Work is her hobby

Eleven years ago, VanWinkel received a call from Courage Center asking her to be a grant writer. “I enjoyed doing that because I think I can put on paper why the sports and rec programs are so important,” she said.

She was also a volunteer coach during that time for basketball and track and field. About six years ago they shifted her into the sports program, which was a natural move, she said.

“What I enjoy most is seeing people’s lives change,” she said.

Every day VanWinkel watches young people come in nervous and unsure of themselves. She encourages them to get involved in an activity that interests them and then watches them transform.

“When they get involved in sports, their lives just open up to a new world of opportunity,” she said. It’s been shown that being involved in sports decreases depression, increases self-confidence, teaches goal-setting and more.

“When you put that with people with disabilities who are at the bottom rung of feeling good about themselves, it is like a booster rocket,” she said. Her job is to coordinate all of the sports, traveling and coaching staff, along with day-to-day interaction with athletes and participants.

“I am the cheerleader,” she said.

Inspiration on the outside

At the time of her accident, VanWinkel’s son was 2 years old. He grew up thinking that it was no big deal for his mom to use a wheelchair to get around. “When he got to school, he realized his mom was different than all the other moms,” she said. “When I started doing good in sports, very good in sports, all of the sudden his mom was better than other moms. And he was proud of me.”

That pride is important to VanWinkel, who said she gets strength and support from her family. Her husband is from Belgium and they met through sports. They have a foreign exchange student from the Republic of Georgia living with them who also uses a wheelchair.

“We want the same things in life for him as we’ve experienced-the positive things,” she said. “And that’s why we’ve got him over here, because there are no opportunities in his country.”

She also has four grandchildren with whom she loves to wrestle. As for sports, she has shifted from basketball and racing to hand-cycling. She enjoys traveling and spending time at their cabin. In her career, VanWinkel said that Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chief executive of Carlson Companies, is also an inspiration. VanWinkel worked with her on a project many years ago for the United Way and found they share many ideas about life.

“She’s a big thinker and she can see the possibilities in people,” VanWinkel said. “I don’t think ‘no’ is part of her vocabulary.”

VanWinkel has a lighthearted and energetic approach to life. She said she feels sometimes people are surprised to hear her speak about serious topics. “My life is an open book,” she said.

Time for change

The most challenging part of her job is the lack of financial support to make these programs happen for every young person with a disability in the Twin Cities, VanWinkel said. The Courage Center is a programming model, and organizations from other cities are constantly calling her to help set up programs and obtain equipment, but there isn’t much she can do beyond guidance.

“People haven’t gotten the idea that these are the types of programs that really change people’s lives,” she said.

She feels that although we have made strides in accepting and incorporating people with disabilities into the able-bodied world, there is still a long way to go.

“I have met some incredibly narrow-minded people in my life and I have met some incredible people that don’t look at my chair, they look at me,” she said. VanWinkel explained that the disability community looks at able-bodied people as temporarily able-bodied. No one ever knows what will happen in life. “None of us expects that this would ever happen to us,” she said. “We’re not interested in gathering people into the club, but there can be a world of good being in this club.”

But for right now, her focus is on Courage Center and the people whose lives she is bettering every day.

“What gets me going is knowing that we’re helping people change their lives,” she said.