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HARRISON, N.Y. - Louis M. Klein Middle School eighth-grader Joana Ayala had a lot to brag about last week after she placed second in multiple events at the Burke Rehabilitation Wheelchair Games . Without an extensive track and field background, Ayala was still able to place second in the events of shot put, javelin and discus with only three weeks of practice.

“She is extremely strong and very coordinated,” Jeanette Monaco, Ayala’s physical education teacher, said.  “She seems like a natural to me.”

Ayala uses a wheelchair because of spina bifida but has always been active in athletics. Since she was a kindergartener at Purchase Elementary in Harrison, she had a love for sports like basketball, swimming, box ball, badminton and her new love of ping-pong.

Monaco said she was so convinced that Ayala held natural talents that she found ways for her to compete. Upon finding the Sept. 24 Burke Rehabilitation Wheelchair Games out of White Plains, Monaco told Ayala it was time to start training.

The research continued as Monaco watched videos of other wheelchair athletes to learn proper techniques. The work paid off when Ayala was named runner-up to the national champion at the event who had already competed multiple times.

Ayala credits much of her success to an extensive support system, from her parents and Monaco and her husband, to her aide Paula Berardi, who always encourages her “to try it just once.”

Director of Special Education Susan Lockhart and Ayala’s fourth grade teacher from Purchase Elementary Angela Ader were also at the Burke Wheelchair Games to see her compete for the first time.

The Burke Rehabilitation Wheelchair Games are open to people from all over the country in five separate categories – young children, older children, young adults and two groups for those ages 45-65.

“Most of all I want to thank myself for being proud of my accomplishments,” Ayala said. “Never say never.”

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