Cassadaga Valley senior Rayven Sample is a state champion who has always competed with the mentality that everything, including himself, is normal even though he has a disability.
With that in mind Falconer/Cassadaga Valley track and field coach Nick Spry wasn’t sure how Sample would react to being asked if he had any interest in trying to become a Paralympic athlete and trying to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
“I didn’t really know what to think at first,” said Spry, who has coached Sample since seventh grade. “Being around him so much I forget there’s something wrong so even I was taken off guard when (a committee member) asked about (Sample) being a Paralympic athlete.
“That was the very first thing that came up. Is this an avenue you think he’d be interested in or taken back by? I had to go to Rayven and ask, ‘You have this opportunity. Do you want to try it or just remain going about like he’s everyone else?’ ”
Sample decided it was too good to pass up.
“It’s just a new opportunity and a good opportunity, it can open a lot of doors,” Sample said. “For me it opened my eyes that the world of track is much bigger than I thought. It was just a wonderful opportunity I knew I had to seize.”
Others also feel the same way.
Eight days after starting a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $10,000, the donations poured in so plentifully that Spry and the Falconer Track Club exceeded that goal. Talk about a community coming together; roughly $8,000 of that money was raised in four days.
“I didn’t expect that kind of response,” Sample said. “I’m overwhelmed. Everyone responded so quickly. It exploded in popularity. A lot of people pitched in. I’m very grateful for that.”
“I couldn’t believe how fast and the support from the community,” Spry said. “It has genuine care for Rayven. Not just to do it, but they want to see him succeed. It’s nice.”
Sample is the lead-off runner for Falconer/CV’s outdoor state Division II championship 4x400 relay team. He’s also a member of the two-time Section VI champion 4x800 relay that placed fourth at the state meet. He placed second at sectionals in the open 400 to qualify for the state meet in that event, too, last spring, earning a chance to experience what it was like to run solo in a state event.
Sample has achieved success even though he was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis, which causes joint contracture. Lack of muscle leads to stiffening of his joints. In Sample's case, the condition has had an obvious effect on his hands and wrists. The limbs are underdeveloped. He doesn't have full motion of all joints and some have little to no motion.
He has a stretching routine to prevent stiffening. Arms may be key for proper running form – aiding with balance and forward momentum, but Sample has figured out his own technique.
The form in which he tries to keep his shoulders as straight to standard as possible, along with loads of hard work, not only has led to winning results but enabled him to earn a chance to run on scholarship at Bucknell.
While a perfect storm is the term Spry uses to describe the early success of Sample’s GoFundMe page, it also applies for the events that have led Sample potentially toward a world-class path.
Sample got on the Paralympic radar because officials from the U.S. National Team happened to be at the state track meet in Middletown last spring. They were there watching other athletes – including those in wheelchairs – compete when they saw Sample.
They watched as the foursome of Sample, Austin Johns, Bryce Baglia and Collin Barmore won the 4x400 by posting a season-best time of 3:21.11 – a CCAA league record. They also saw the group place in the 4x800 and watched Sample finish 12th in the 400.
After the meet, Spry received an email inquiring about Sample. After back and forth communication and waiting for the lengthy process of Sample’s paperwork to be processed, Spry and Sample learned earlier this month there was one qualifier to evaluate potential Paralympic hopefuls April 1-5 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Donations raised through to GoFundMe page not only will cover registration but travel expenses – an estimated $4,000 for Arizona. Should Sample need to attend a second evaluation meet in London prior to the U.S. trials, funds would have to be used to handle that. A trip to London might make financing the cost for a trip to the U.S. Paralympic trials in June in Minnesota a little dicey, which is probably why the U.S. rep Spry has been in communication with told him they’d likely need more than the money raised to cover everything. Spry said the U.S. trials in Minnesota in late June likely would cost more than the Arizona trip.
Spry is still finding out details, learning whatever he can from those who have been through the process to help Sample budget and prepare.
He’s also learning bit by bit what the April meet entails. That includes a classification process in which medical personnel watch to see what the athletes can and cannot do. They also watch them compete and assign a classification to the athletes.
“It’s not just track,” Spry said. “There’s archery, swimming.”
Spry isn’t sure where Sample would be classified. He thinks it would be in a class of racers with arm amputees.
Although Sample has talent a good number of normal athletes would envy, Spry doesn’t think officials will deem Sample ineligible for competition.
“According to the conversations I’ve had with my source in the Paralympics … he should be fine,” Spry said.
“Being deemed not being able to compete would be the only thing that would be scary,” Sample said. “I feel the work I’ve been doing this year has put me on a good path to having a good shot (of performing well).”