TAMPA HOSTS DIXIE GAMES – ARTICLE COURTESY OF JOYCE MCKENZIE WITH THE TAMPA TRIBUNE

TAMPA HOSTS DIXIE GAMES – ARTICLE COURTESY OF JOYCE MCKENZIE WITH THE TAMPA TRIBUNE

TAMPA, Fla. – Seated momentarily in a chair at the All People’s Life Center gymnasium with his feet propped up on another one nearby, Andy Chasanoff admitted to aching feet.

The Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay coordinator was just three-quarters of the way through the second day of the four-day Dixie Games, which he helped organize.

“And to think I traded a drive to Georgia for six months of work to hold them here,” joked Chasanoff. “No, in reality we are honored to be able to host the Dixie Games here. It’s the first time they have been held outside of Georgia and Alabama.”

The center, managed by the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, is home to Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay. The program’s 23 athletes were among the 100 physically challenged youngsters and adults to take part in the May 6-9 competition.

The center hosted the archery, fencing, table tennis and field competitions while the Temple Terrace Family Recreation Complex hosted the swimming events and the University of South Florida’s track was utilized for that portion of the competition. Embassy Suites on Fowler Avenue also played a role by housing out-of-town athletes and providing space for registration and a wrap-up party in celebration of the event’s 30th anniversary.

“We’re very grateful to the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department for putting in a bid for the games and for helping to fund the event,” Chasanoff said. “We’re also very appreciative of the Temple Terrace rec center, our program partner, and to USF for the use of its new state-of-the-art track.”

Sarah Goldman, 18, who recently completed her freshman year at the University of Central Florida and competed in several Dixie Games events, was thrilled to be with her “family” of special needs friends.

Born with cerebral palsy, she has spent countless hours at All People’s Life Center, initially as a member of the Blaze Sports Clubs Tampa Bay program for physically disabled athletes. Blaze Sports started eight years ago and became the Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay program in 2008.

“I think it (the Dixie Games) is good recognition for Andy and it’s a chance to show everyone that Tampa is an emerging Paralympic program,” she said.

“It’s great to be able to come and show your talent and be able to be called a real-life athlete,” said Alexa Coker, 19, a University of North Florida sophomore and Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay member.

Wharton High senior Valerie Baker, 19, born with a condition in which she lacks muscle tone, was also on hand to hang out with her girlfriends and compete in table tennis as well as several field and swimming events.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s a great learning experience,” she said. “It’s also great to meet people from different states.”

Valerie’s mother, Betsy, credits both Chasanoff and his associate, Becky Lehman, a recreational therapist, for the program’s success.

“Andy is just phenomenal and he knows how to do things the right way. He wants them to do well in competition but he wants them to have fun, too,” she said. “And Becky’s really great, too. She young and she gets it.”

The social aspect of the program, Chasanoff said, is as important as the athletes’ ability to compete.

“This program makes Tampa Bay a great place to be for these kids,” said Chasanoff, who learned that first hand from his son Thomas, 21, who was born with cerebral palsy and a hearing loss also is involved in the organization.

Kelly Parker, whose daughter Casey, 9, an amputee, is a member of the Tampa Paralympic team that grooms athletes for national and international competitions, calls it “godsend.” And Casey finds it “fun” being around other kids with challenges.

“Andy and Becky have just been wonderful,” she said. “I’m very protective of Casey but I would trust them for the world to do what is best for her.”

Now that the games are behind him, Chasanoff should be able to slow down long enough for his hurting feet to heal. He knows, however, there won’t be much time for loafing because Dixie Games officials have already put in a request to hold the 2011 competition in Tampa.

Reporter Joyce McKenzie can be reached at (813) 731-8026.