The Grand Rapids Sled Wings continue to provide athletic avenues for kids with disabilities.
Story by Mark Newman
Tyler Anderson and Susie Kluting may not appear as mobile as other young adults, but thanks to an opportunity provided in part by the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation, they’ve been to places that most people their age have never visited.
Both are members of the Grand Rapids Sled Wings, a team of physically challenged athletes who travel near and far to compete on the ice against other teams in a unique version of ice hockey.
Unable to walk due to being born with spina bifida, Anderson and Kluting were both introduced to the sport more than a decade ago by Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, which has sponsored the Sled Wings with the support of the Griffins Youth Foundation since the team’s founding in 2001.
Neither has allowed their physical disabilities to slow them.
The 21-year-old Anderson, a 2009 graduate of Jenison High School, is in his third season with the U.S. National Developmental Sled Hockey Team. He has played wheelchair basketball and tennis, competed in the Fifth Third River Bank Run’s 25K hand cycle race, and kayaked in Alaska.
Kluting, 19, was recently named to the newly formed U.S. Women's Sled Hockey Team, becoming the Sled Wings’ third national-caliber player in as many years. Zeeland resident Chris Melton was a Team USA teammate of Anderson's last season.
A 2010 graduate of Coopersville High School, Kluting has tried wheelchair tennis, rock climbing, swimming, water skiing and even downhill snow skiing.
Both Anderson and Kluting have developed an unequivocal love for sled hockey.
“I was primarily playing wheelchair basketball when I thought I would give it a try, and I’ve been enjoying the game ever since,” Anderson said. “The competition is cool, but it’s the friendships you make, the camaraderie among players, that I really enjoy.”
Kluting shares the same enthusiasm. “I’ve really gotten into the game and I’m not only excited about playing but also being able to coach and teach the younger kids,” Kluting said. “I really like the thrill of watching others get their start. You remember things you did when you were their age.”
Both played for the Sled Wings junior team before graduating to the adult team. They continue to practice for an hour or two every Saturday morning at Griff’s IceHouse, in addition to participating in camps and tournaments across the country.
Anderson recently attended the USA training camp in Charlotte, N.C., with the goal of making the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team in time for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. To assist in Anderson’s preparation for national team tryouts later this year, Griff’s IceHouse will be donating ice time to the Olympic hopeful each week this spring and summer.
Kluting, meanwhile, has attended camps in New Jersey and Wisconsin and traveled to tournaments in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne, Indiana, among other destinations.
Players compete on modified sleds with back supports, their blades set close enough to provide ample mobility but far enough apart to allow them to balance their weight. “Good balance is key,” Kluting said.
In sled hockey, players propel themselves with two sticks, which have sharp points on one end and a shortened hockey blade on the other. “It takes a lot of overall coordination,” Anderson said. “You have to learn to push, pass and shoot with the same stick. You have to be able to do a lot of things in the right order.”
Sled hockey, which follows essentially the same rules as the traditional game, is a fast-growing, fast-paced sport ideal for individuals with lower limb-affected disabilities such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, paraplegia or amputation.
The Sled Wings program attracts both recreational and competitive junior athletes who have good upper extremity function. Once a year, they get to test their skills with and against the able-bodied Grand Rapids Griffins in a popular sled hockey game at Griff’s IceHouse.
Both Anderson and Kluting agree that the game is a ton of fun.
Like the hundreds of pros who have passed through Grand Rapids, the pair are thankful for the support of their parents. Mike and Terrie Kluting have backed Susie in all her endeavors, as Dan and Jodie Anderson have supported their son.
While Anderson and Kluting intend to play as long as possible, they also see their participation as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Anderson attends Grand Rapids Community College and is an intern with the Griffins’ community relations department. He is interested in possibly pursuing a career in CAD design but is undecided about his career path at the present.
Kluting is looking to further her education at Muskegon Community College. She enjoys photography but is contemplating a career in therapeutic recreation.