Graham Henderson isn’t exactly what you’d call shy or subtle. He loves teasing people and pushing their buttons. As Sheila O’Brien, executive director of Spirited Athletes Bold at Heart, put it, “Graham’s the best. He can work a room.”
So when the 24-year-old Henderson, who has Down syndrome, succeeded in his longtime campaign to skate a solo at SABAH’s ice show in the First Niagara Center this Sunday, he played it very cool, like the “dude” that he is.
O’Brien had been listening to Henderson’s lobbying for a solo for a few years, so she was looking forward to giving him the good news in December.
“Graham, I have a very important question for you,” she recalled telling him.
“Yes,” he replied, probably knowing exactly what the question would be.
“Could you do a solo for the ice show?” she asked him.
“Let me think about it for a minute,” he answered, with a straight face.
As O’Brien said later, “That’s Graham. He’s got a great sense of humor.”
Henderson, from Akron, is one of the many success stories who will be flashing their skating moves at the organization’s 37th annual ice show at 2 p.m. Sunday. The organization now has close to 700 skaters and another 500 volunteers.
He’s been skating with SABAH for 12 years, half his life, and he’s gone from a young, wobbly skater who relied on a walker to an accomplished young man who stands straight on his skates and has mastered the tough crossover move. He actually will be skating a duet with his longtime SABAH volunteer, Brian Manley, 20, to the tune of Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.”
SABAH, like many sporting activities for people with disabilities, levels the playing field for these athletes – and provides them with a major dose of self-confidence.
That confidence, along with his family’s strong support, has helped Henderson carve out an independent lifestyle. He has his own apartment, attends a People Inc. day program three times a week and has two volunteer jobs, at a Batavia animal shelter and with the skating association’s beginning skaters.
“SABAH has helped a great deal in bolstering his confidence,” said his mother, Melanie. “The success that he has experienced on the ice ... has been a key to his increasing independence over the years.”
That on-ice success has helped encourage Graham Henderson to play other sports, including basketball, soccer, volleyball and riding horses.
“He always had good balance and was pretty well-coordinated, but he didn’t start walking until he was 3,” his mother said. “It’s been a journey, but I never expected he would be good in sports.”
One lesson she’s learned from helping her son: It’s OK to let him try something new, to encourage him to take some risks, such as riding a bus on his own.
“Sometimes, until you let them try an independent activity and be willing to let it fall apart and pick up the pieces, you never know what they can do,” Melanie Henderson said. “You never know until they try.”
That’s why Henderson epitomizes SABAH’s theme for the coming year: No Limits.
“It’s a confidence and absolute fearlessness to try things,” O’Brien said. “Graham could teach us all a little about that fearlessness.”
SABAH also helps develop strong friendships. Graham Henderson lingers after his weekly skating practice to chat with other skaters. And he’s become great buddies with his skating partner, Manley.
Graham Henderson doesn’t have any trouble communicating what he wants.
A couple of years ago, at a SABAH event with the Buffalo Sabres, Henderson spotted a jersey worn by former Sabre Andrew Peters. So he approached Sabres President Ted Black, pointed to the jersey and said, “I like that jersey very much.”
“Is that a hint, Graham?” Black asked, according to O’Brien.
“Yes, I would like a jersey,” Henderson replied.
He also knows a pretty girl when he sees one, and he’s not shy about it, his mother said. Manley, his skating partner, confided that Henderson has proposed to at least one female volunteer.
And how did she, or they, respond?
“That’s personal stuff,” Henderson replied. “That’s personal stuff, dude.”