Kansas girl looks to home court advantage at international competition for unique paralympic sport

073013-lizzieLizzie Flora-Swick gets encouragement from one of her biggest fans, her dad Mark Flora-Swick, Gardner, before the paralympic boccia competition during the Mid America Games in Guatemala two years ago. She’ll be competing as a member of Team USA in the 2013 Boccia Americas Cup, which her dad was an instrumental part of organizing for Aug. 2-9, at Gardner. Courtesy photo.

“I’m really excited about playing for my teammates and my country, and of course the individual competition,” said Elizabeth Flora-Swick, 19, Gardner, who is anticipating the 2013 Boccia Americas Cup, Aug. 2-9, at the New Century Field House near Gardner.

“I practice about four times a week for an hour-and-a-half at a time. I get pretty tired,” said Elizabeth, better known by family and friends as Lizzie.

“Our Team USA practiced in Chicago on Friday and Saturday from 10 o’clock to five in the afternoon. That was a long time,” she said.

Practicing for international level competition of any sport requires hard work and dedication. But that preparation takes on even more persistency, trying and special meaning for a person like Lizzie, who was born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability limiting her body movement.

Still, there’s never hint of resentment or complaining as Lizzie talked in cheerful optimism about the sport.

Although it is an internationally recognized, boc   cia is not a well-known game to many.

According to one of Lizzie’s biggest fans, her dad Mark Flora-Swick, “While it can be family backyard entertainment, boccia, pronounced ‘bot-cha,’ is a precision ball sport where a red or blue leather ball is propelled on a court by throwing, kicking or use of a ramp, with the aim of getting closest to a white target ball, or the ‘jack.’”

Introduced as a paralympic sport in 1984, boccia has no Olympic counterpart, but it is played by athletes in more than 50 countries. They compete on indoors courts similar in size to a badminton court.

After first seeing the sport when she was 9 years old, Lizzie was determined to play boccia and started participating in 2002. From her wheelchair, she throws with her left hand.

“I wasn’t very skilled the first time. I wasn’t very strong. I was just a little kid. But, I kept trying, working at it and eventually improved,” she said.

By 2006, Lizzie placed second in a major tournament and moved on to national competition two years later in Georgia, where she was happy to rank among the top contestants.

Continued hard work and dedicated practice increased Lizzie’s ability, and the Kansas girl became a national champion in the BC1 class, earning a position on Team USA.

Mark said, “In the BC1 class, players throw a ball with the hand or foot. They may compete with an assistant, who stays outside of the competitor’s play box, to stabilize or adjust their playing chair, and give the ball to the player when requested.”

There are three other classes depending on contestants’ functional ability.

A quadruplet, Lizzie was a 2012 honor student graduate from Gardner-Edgerton High School with her sisters, Rachel, Rebekah and Hannah, each with different career plans. Lizzie attends John Brown University, Siloam, Ark., where she’ll be a sophomore this fall in child and family studies.

They have an older brother, Micah. Their mother is Jane Flora-Swick, pastor of the Lone Star Church of the Brethren, near Lawrence.

All plan to be in the bleachers along with Lizzie’s extended family and vast friendship when Team USA hits the court at Boccia Americas Cup.

“I competed in Guatemala on Team USA two years ago, and it’s really exciting to be competing in my own state this year,” Lizzie said.

Other Kansans on Team USA are A.B. Anwar, BC2 national champion, and Austin Hansen, BC3 national champion, both from Topeka.

Traveling to boccia competitions throughout the country, and the world, is the entire burden of participants, and it can become quite expensive.

“Our whole family has really enjoyed following Lizzie, and boccia as a sport. We decided to see about sponsoring an Americas Cup right here in the central part of the country, so it was more convenient for many of the contestants,” Mark said.

“This has required lots of planning and cooperation, but the 2013 Boccia Americas Cup is going to be a reality in Kansas. I really appreciate everybody’s assistance and generosity,” he added.

This year’s Kansas event is one of three international competitions that are qualifying events for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

“Teams will be coming from Argentina, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa and throughout the United States,” Mark said. “There will be more than 200 athletes, support staff, coaches and officials.

“We’re fortunate to have the New Century Field House at Gardner for the event. It is truly a state of the art facility with perfect courts and lots of room for spectators to watch the games.”

Odds are said to be 22 million to one to win a gold medal at Olympics. “We love helping Paralympic athletes succeed, and we want to help Team USA with the home field advantage,” Mark said.

“This event is an opportunity for developing boccia players to see the elite athletes from around the world and to learn the techniques and strategies that make champions,” Mark said.

Because of the high costs involved with sponsoring an event of this caliber, sponsorship opportunities are available for those interested in providing tax deductible financial support. Volunteers are also needed to assist at the tournament.

Information is available www.2013bocciaAmericascup.org.

Looking to a career in social work with children, Lizzie has the upcoming competition first on her mind now, but likely boccia will remain an important part of her life.

“There are definitely opportunities for me to continue playing boccia. It’s a competitive and fun sport that really does require lots of energy,” Lizzie said.

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