Athlete Back in Action with Help from PT By: Tamara Forte

Published October 30, 2023

Athlete Back in Action with Help from PT

By Tamara Forte

CHESTERTOWN — The right time. The right place. The right people. Sometimes all the details align even better than we could plan. Linda Buckle, a physical therapist at Advanced Orthopedics in Chestertown, was the right person, at the right place, at the right time. On July 5, 2023, Buckle met and treated her patient Dantrail Hicks, 42, for knee pain and swelling. Buckle quickly learned that Hicks has struggled with cerebral palsy his entire life.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Cerebral means having to do with the brain. Palsy means weakness or problems with using the muscles. CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain that affects a person’s ability to control his muscles. Severe CP (like Hick’s) may use special equipment to be able to walk… and might need lifelong care. CP does not get worse over time, though the exact symptoms can change over a person’s lifetime.

Even with severe CP, Hicks is a two-time Special Olympic Bench Press Champion, a two-time gold medalist in the Maryland Special Olympics Cycling Championship, and a bronze medalist in the United States National Cycling Championship. Hicks has over twenty gold medals from twenty one years of participating in the Special Olympics. But, a couple months ago, when Buckle and Hicks first met, he could lift no weight with his legs.

Coincidentally, Hick’s former Kent County High School coach, Dan Zottarelli, was also a patient at the same clinic. During these sessions, Buckle learned how Zottarelli had mentored and trained Hicks from a shy and quiet high school freshman (who could not lift 45 lbs) to a confident high school senior (who benched 180-200 lbs) - more than his total body weight. Zottarelli proudly described Hicks as a “fine young man that is bubbly and funny.” He noted Hicks had turned into a local hero at Kent County High School, a hero that the school, community, and even nation cheered for, cheered on, and was inspired by. During his recent physical therapy sessions, Hicks gravitated to the stationary bike. Buckle explained the clinic only has two stationary bikes. Hicks can only ride one of the clinic’s bikes, as his muscle limitations require his feet to be strapped to the pedals in order to ride. Buckle laughed that Hicks “never wanted to get off the bike” during therapy sessions. She proudly exclaimed over Hicks improvements, “his right leg is stronger than his left. He now lifts 10 pounds on the right and 8 pounds on the left. When we started, he couldn’t lift any weight. So, the bicycling is helping him tremendously as he pushes himself on the bike to the point he is sweating.” But, there is always a line of people waiting at the clinic to use these stationary bikes to build and strengthen their bodies, she noted.

During his physical therapy session, Hicks told Linda, “I gotta get a bike. I want to buy a bike. I am looking at a bike.” As his therapist, Buckle went beyond her job requirements and really listened to Hicks. Quickly she learned that Hicks did have a trike, or tricycle, that he loved to ride. She learned that it was kept in a shed and hadn’t been used for more than ten years. Back in high school, Zottarelli, surprisingly, too learned Hicks could ride a bike during a school training session. When seeing Hicks pedal a stationary bike at school at age 16, Zottarelli questioned why Hicks never told him he could ride. Hicks smiled and answered back, “you never asked me.” Zottarelli saw how much Hicks loved the bike and knew that it was a good way to train and condition. So, Zottarelli invested his own money and bought Hicks a blue Miami Sun tricycle.This trike opened up many adventures for both Zottarelli and Hicks. In high school, Hicks used to ride this bike in the hallway. Hicks shared, “It was good therapy for my legs.” Upon qualifying and being invited to the 1999 United States National Cycling Championship in Fort Smith, AK, Zottarelli and Hicks both flew out to AK together and had the trike shipped out too. To pay for this trip, Zottarelli held two yard sales and raised $1,800. That was Hick’s first and only trip on a plane to date.

With all race details in place, the trike was shipped to the Race Director at the US National Cycling Championship, who built it again upon arrival. The race director also remapped the track to exclude the hilly terrain with Hicks in mind. But, Hick’s trike started going too fast. The trike wobbled. Hick’s feet were taped to the pedals. Zottarelli, who was running next to Hicks, went to catch Hicks and caught his own leg in the trike tire instead. This broke the specially made trike. Luckily, Hick’s friendly nature encouraged other cyclists to help. He came in third place, using another rider’s bike. Buckle hearing the trike stories during the multiple therapy visits each week, was curious. Buckle asked Hicks if they could go look at the trike one Saturday. Hicks said he didn’t think she would really go. Well, that Saturday came and both Hicks and Buckle drove out together and found the trike. After moving lots of items off the trike, it was found! “All the tires and tubes were shot. The brakes were shot. The handlebars were shot. It needed an overhaul from the mechanical standpoint,” Buckle explained. She wanted to help but would also need some help. Linda Buckle describes Hicks as a “very special, amazing man. He is an outgoing gentleman who is gregarious too.” Hicks explains, “I look forward to physical therapy. That’s my favorite thing to do. I like physical therapy. That’s how I met Linda. Linda wouldn’t have met me if I said no to therapy.” The blue trike took about six weeks to repair. Kelly Coleman, of Rock Hall, was instrumental in finalizing the straps so Hicks could manage them easily with his left hand incoordination. In 2015, Diana Laclaire, Kent County High School Physical Therapist, did the original pedal modification for the Olympic Event. This time around, Buckle consulted with LaClaire regarding the addition of the velcro straps for the pedals.

Buckle explains this trike is just the first model, or prototype, “The pedals are still a little difficult to manage but at this point, with a little assistance, he can get on the trike and get back to cycling. Kelly and I plan to refine the pedals this winter.”

“My friend Daniel Ryan, of Rock Hall, helped me pick up the trike and he took over the entire job gratis, repairing and painting the bike red, as Hicks had requested. All of the other supplies for the trike restoration were covered by an anonymous donor (about $170).” In addition, Buckle’s neighbors, Colleen and Andy Stapp, donated the fancy flashing rechargeable light for the front handle bars.

This past Thursday, Hicks was reunited with his trike. Hicks explained when he saw his newly repaired bike, it was like when someone fixes up an old car. It was the same feeling and excitement. They rolled the bike right into the clinic to meet Hicks. When asked what keeps him going, Hicks said it’s the therapy and exercise, “The sports keep me going because I kept setting a whole bunch of state records. I was weighing 120 and benched 200. No one ever broke that record before or yet. That was the best because it made me stronger.” Added Buckle, “pedaling the bike and getting that exercise increases your endorphin levels and makes you happy. There’s a certain degree about what exercise does for us.” Now that Hicks is reunited with his trike again, will there be more races in the future? Said Hicks, “If I had the right kind of bike, the right coach, and the right sponsors, I probably would do races again. I’d do it.” Hicks rode his repaired trike with the biggest smile, giggling and celebrating. While riding the trike, he shared that he was given a red bike for Christmas when he was five years old, but he could never ride it because it didn’t have straps for his feet — 37 years later, Hicks now gets to ride his red bike. “It takes a village to make it to the finish line,” said Buckle. “Be positive,” advised Hicks, “With cerebral palsy my life is different. I see a lot of people, who don’t have cerebral palsy, complain. And I am like you can get up, you don’t have to get a walker to walk to the door. You want to complain? Man, I would do anything to trade places with that person cause I wanted to be a boxer so bad. I think about it all the time. But I know I can’t do it. You don’t know how good you got it though. I have good days and bad days. I try to stay positive.”

Today, be like Dan Zottarelli and inspire others to see and achieve beyond their potential. Be an active, positive change to the people and world around you.

Be like Linda Buckle and listen, really listen with love, thoughtfulness, and compassion. You will never know who’s life you can positively impact unless we truly take the time to listen to each other and help when we can.

And lastly, be positive and be like Dantrail Hicks. Refuse to be held back by any circumstance. Continue to grow, work harder, get stronger, and radiate joy every day. With every paint stroke, every fixed handlebar, every word of encouragement, and every pedal, the world becomes a kinder, better, brighter place for us all.