It's been a year since Thomas Bowlin was nominated for the St. Paul (Minn.) Athlete of the Year. He remembers being onstage at the St. Paul Downtown Lions Club with multi-sport stars like Mark Alt, a state champion quarterback who got a hockey scholarship from the University of Minnesota. Past winners include Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Chris Weinke and Joe Mauer.
Bowlin was 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds. He looked around at the other finalists and thought, "What the heck am I doing here?"
The answer to that starts in an Arizona hospital bed, where Bowlin lay three years ago, receiving the Catholic Anointing of the Sick sacrament delivered to those near death. Bowlin was only a teenager, but he had been through 70 surgeries already. This one, his parents feared, would be the last.
"This one was different," remembers Tom, Bowlin's dad. "Other doctors thought it was far too dangerous of a procedure to even attempt -- the smallest of mistakes could end his life."
Thomas Bowlin was born with a form of spina bifida, a disorder in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. He had a shunt surgically placed to drain fluid from his brain. Eventually, as a small child, Bowlin was fitted with leg braces below his knees and with the help of crutches, was able to move around.
Somehow, a love of sports developed and thrived.
Propping himself up with one crutch, Bowlin learned to play basketball and baseball from his dad. "He had a great arm, and with the bat in one arm and the crutch in the other, he could hit," says Tom. "We even looked into him playing football as the field goal kicker’s holder, but thought better of it."
Thomas wanted to be a part of a team – any team. "I wanted to be like everyone else," he says.
As he grew older, more medical problems developed. A surgical error when he was 12 years old resulted in Thomas needing to use a wheelchair full-time. When the shunt didn’t work as it was designed, Bowlin endured intense headaches, nausea and fatigue. As the result of scar tissue build-up from his surgeries, Bowlin’s symptoms became more constant when he turned 13.
And still it didn't stop Thomas from pursuing his love of sports. He joined a local wheelchair basketball team and adapted his shot to a sitting position. "With all of his suffering, Thomas never complained," says Tom. "He'd play a basketball tournament, come home, and within a couple of days, we’d have to take him to the doctor or emergency room; but his teammates never knew. He didn’t let on."
Living in Minnesota, a leader in providing adapted athletic opportunities, Thomas had opportunities to play adapted floor hockey, adapted softball, adapted soccer and wheelchair basketball. He played them all, despite his pain. "He would never give up," says Tom, "and there were lots of opportunities when he could have."
His parents sought the best care for Thomas from top medical institutions, but nothing worked. The headaches became constant. In his first two years of high school, Thomas could only summon to attend 90 days of classes.
Then, finally, in 2008, the last-ditch surgery in Arizona worked.
After a three-week recovery period, Thomas' symptoms were gone. "I'd still get an occasional headache," he says, "but they're like the ones that everyone has."
Thomas went right back to the field of play. And his achievements piled up: 14 times he lettered for a varsity sports team; nine times he was selected as captain of his teams; eight times he won all-conference awards; six times he was selected as defensive player of the year.
And his wheelchair basketball team won a national championship.
"I ask myself what goal or image do I have for myself in sports -- do I want to just sit back and enjoy myself or try to be a leader?" says Thomas. "And then, I set about identifying the steps I need to take to improve myself and my teammates. For me, sports have been about fitting in."
He did just that on stage a year ago. He did more than that, actually.
Thomas Bowlin became the first adaptive athlete to win St. Paul Athlete of the Year.
He graduated last June and now, at age 18, he’s planning to attend Southwest Minnesota State and play wheelchair basketball there.
"Being in a wheelchair," he says, "you don't think about being on a sports team -- having that opportunity. I never thought I'd be able to do some of the things I did playing on a team. I felt very honored to be on a list that included Joe Mauer and Dave Winfield."
No doubt Mauer and Winfield are just as honored to be on a list that includes Thomas Bowlin.
-- Michael O’Halloran is founder and editor of Sports Feel Good Stories.