By Kevin McGeever
Long before Cordell “Cisco” Jeter envisioned tracked wheelchairs as a means of unlocking accessible travel, long before he realized his life’s ambition of opening the Florida outdoors to people of all abilities, Jeter was 19 years old, pinned under a crumpled wreck on the side of a mountain.
There were four Salem College students in the car that spring day in 1988. The drive from northern Virginia to the West Virginia campus took four-plus hours. The three passengers napped -- Jeter on the right side in the back. Nobody was wearing a seatbelt which, as it happened, may have saved their lives.
When the driver reached into the back seat for a moment, the road turned, and the car just went over the side. No brake lights. No skid marks. During a half-dozen rolls, everyone was ejected.
Jeter awoke on his side, feet pointing down the slope. “I could see the spinning wheel of the overturned car and, up the slope, people.” He couldn’t determine how far he had traveled, but he remembered that “the people were small.”
Jeter was trapped under the wreck from mid-chest down. “My back hurts and I’m having trouble breathing,” he told a firefighter.
“What position are your legs in?” the firefighter asked.
Jeter: “My right leg is over my left.”
“Try again,” the firefighter said.
“My left leg over my right?”
“You don’t move,” the firefighter said. “We’ll get you out of here.”
“I knew anatomy,” Jeter said, “and there was a problem.” The three-sport star who was voted most athletic in his high school of 5,000 students, who was a scholarship college football player, was now paralyzed from the waist down.
The reasonable assumption for the listener at this point is, this was a life-altering event, a sudden, horrific change of course that would require months if not years of physical and spiritual rehabilitation. So Jeter was asked: Thirty-three years later, did he still have dreams about the crash?
“No,” Jeter said, not skipping a beat. “I went straight from the accident to ‘What’s next? Let’s go.’”
After four weeks of rehabilitation, he had completed a prescribed list of physical accomplishments. Therapists were asking him to demonstrate exercises for his fellow patients.
Jeter had plenty of inspiration. Friends and family were a constant, encouraging presence. There was a magazine called Sports and Spokes: sports for people in wheelchairs.
On the drive home after his release from the rehab hospital, Jeter and his family crossed paths with the annual Marine Corps Marathon. He saw wheelchair racers.
It was Fall 1988. Cisco Jeter had just turned 20 years old and here was something that he could do.
He started with local races: 10Ks and marathons that were part physical challenge, part socialization, and beer at the finish line. But he dominated, regionally at least, in the sprints: 200, 400, and 800 meters, and the 1,500 or metric mile.
That success took him to the national championships in 1990. In his four events he finished dead last -- each time. “I was so far behind in the 1,500,” Jeter said, “that the crowd gave me the ‘sympathy clap.’”
But he would get excellent help and he would learn. Bob Hall, the winner of the first Boston Marathon wheelchair race in 1975, mentored Jeter about his chair and his sitting posture. More important, Hall connected Jeter with Craig Blanchette, a Paralympian and world champion and one of the first athletes to be featured in a Nike “Just Do It” commercial.
Jeter moved to Eugene, Ore., and trained with Blanchette for two years. When Cisco returned to the national championships in 1992, he set a national record in the 400 meters and also qualified for the Paralympics in the 800. This time, the claps were real.
Thirty years ago, an Olympics specifically for disabled athletes was new; Jeter would have to pay his own way to Barcelona. His mother and family friends raised more than $40,000 to cover his expenses. “To tell the truth,” Jeter recalled, “(their kindness) put the pressure on.”
He would win an individual bronze and a team gold as a member of a world record-setting relay. The young man who had lost the use of his legs on a hill in West Virginia was now sitting on top of the athletic world. So, what’s next?
After a failed attempt to make the Paralympic team for Atlanta in 1996, Jeter took “3-4 months off” … and never raced again. The chair still hangs in his mother’s garage in Virginia.
He worked at what he knew, starting a durable medical equipment company: walkers, canes, hospital beds, wheelchairs. The Fairfax County (Va.) Therapeutic Recreation program asked him to speak to the participating children, who were 5 to 12 years old.
“I realized they were playing (only) indoor games,” Jeter said. They needed to get outside. He would spend almost two years turning therapeutic recreation into a competitive sports program. Hundreds of individuals in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., have since become wheelchair athletes in the Fairfax Falcons adaptive sports program.
Over the next couple decades, Jeter settled into a career and his reality. “My acceptance of my disability left me with ‘I can’t go on grass,’ ‘I can’t go on the beach.’”
By 2016, he and his wife Sandy had moved to North Port, south of Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf coast. He was aware of tracked wheelchairs, which allowed the user to navigate uneven surfaces like forest trails or the soft sand of a Florida beach. But the chairs were out of reach for his budget -- more than $16,000, “like a second car.”
Through GoFundMe, 120 donors raised the entire amount.
“I get in it and drive across the backyard into the woods,” Jeter said. “I’ve been staring at those woods. Now I’m sitting in this unpaved, wild area. It was mind-boggling.”
Prior to the all-terrain chair, trips to Myakka River State Park or Babcock Ranch in Punta Gorda “wouldn’t be enjoyable, they’d be effort” for Cisco and his wife. Going over a bump might require the help of 2-3 people.
Now, in those previously unavailable places off the beaten path, the epiphanies came fast and furious. He thought of those children back in Fairfax County and the opportunities they might be missing. He thought of an uncle who wanted to see the ocean one final time but died in hospice care.
“Why isn’t this technology everywhere?” he asked. The track chair was a means to inclusion, to a “next level of freedom.”
Making the chairs economical and accessible to more people “became like a drumbeat in my head. How do you let people know? How do you afford it? How do you transport it?”
Enter David Jones who, as the founder of SportsAbility Alliance (formerly the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association), has been working to answer those questions for more than 30 years.
“My experience with outdoor mobility has been an issue for me personally and our audience for years,” Jones said. “The need has been identified. Now we think we have a solution.”
After five years of working the problem together, Jeter and Jones are gaining traction on a plan to make tracked wheelchairs available at Florida vacation destinations.
“We intend to have a program running (in two locations) by January 2022,” Jones says. “We hope to have at least 10 hubs in the next two years.”
Jeter says he has a manufacturing partner who will build the EcoRover chairs for roughly $9,000, well under the market price. According to their plans, participating cities would buy and store the wheelchairs; SportsAbility would administer the program (reservations and staffing).
“Cordell has invested his heart and soul in doing this. He’s not in it to make money,” Jones says. “He’s doing it for all the right reasons. He sees the need and knows what the chair does for people. It enhances lives.”
If this vision is realized and Jeter is able to make the Florida outdoors more inclusive? Well then, what’s next?
He wants to go back to the Florida Keys. “I wanna learn to scuba-dive.”
The Southwest Florida region where Cordell Jeter lives is also home to ADA-compliant state parks, miles of nationally-known Gulf Beaches, and the wild wonders of Everglades National Park.
Here are some outdoor opportunities from those coastal counties …
The National Park Service website dramatically sets the stage at DeSoto National Memorial: “In May 1539, Conquistador Hernando de Soto’s army of soldiers, hired mercenaries, craftsmen, and clergy made landfall in Tampa Bay. They were met with fierce resistance of indigenous people protecting their homelands. De Soto’s quest for glory and gold would be a four-year, 4,000-mile odyssey of intrigue, warfare, disease, and discovery that would form the history of the United States.”
The Resort at Longboat Key Club accommodates mobility accessible needs via self-operating lifts or sloped entryways at its spa, marina, fitness center, golf course, tennis courts, plus beach-accessible wheelchairs are available upon request.
The Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, or SMART, provides therapeutic horse-related programs to enhance the quality of life for children and adults with special needs.
The Miracle League of Manasota, an affiliate of the National Miracle League Association, provides children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to play baseball. From the website: “Manasota Field is specifically designed for individuals with physical and/or cognitive challenges. It is made with a rubberized surface that is wheelchair-accessible. Bases and pitching mounds are painted on the surface so that there are no raised obstacles found on a typical baseball field. The “dugout” area is big enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and we have spectator seating areas behind home plate and adjacent to the player benches.”
At county beaches, beach wheelchairs are available to the public at no cost year-round at Lido, Manasota, Nokomis, Siesta, and Venice.
Selkie Adaptive Paddle uses adaptive kayaks and paddleboards to introduce outdoors lovers with disabilities and their friends and families to the waterways and ecosystems around Englewood and Boca Grande. Manatees, dolphins, and many bird species are in abundance. Fishing and shelling are favored activities.
At Stump Pass Beach State Park, beach wheelchairs are available for free. The Gulf access means shelling, fishing, snorkeling, and paddling. A 1.3-mile hiking trail introduces visitors to the native flora and fauna: Southern bald eagles, fiddler crabs and wading birds, plus plants such as prickly pear cactus, indigo berry, bay cedar, and coontie.
A ferry takes visitors to Don Pedro Island and a picnic on the Gulf of Mexico. Beach wheelchairs are available for free. Fishing, snorkeling, and paddling are among the activities available to the adventurous.
The invitation on the Lovers Key State Park website sounds dreamy for fans of the outdoors: “The land that is now Lovers Key State Park was donated to the people of Florida so that its beaches and mangrove forests can be preserved for all to enjoy. Hop in a kayak or lounge under an umbrella on the shore. Explore serene canals and lagoons that are favorite grazing spots for manatee and shorebirds. You may see the calm turquoise waters broken by a dolphin’s dorsal fin or by the strike of an osprey’s talons.” The park’s accessibility features include: trams and elevated boardwalks to the beach, and beach and trail wheelchairs for free.
This story on 13 Wheelchair-Accessible Things to Do in Fort Myers and Sanibel includes notable stops (Edison-Ford Winter Estates and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum) as well as outdoor adventures (Six-Mile Cypress Slough Preserve and J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge).
In addition to beautiful beaches, the Naples-Marco Island region is a gateway to wild wonders.
Of Big Cypress National Preserve, native Florida author Jeff Klinkenberg wrote: “From U.S. 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, the main road through the 720,000-acre wilderness, gators line canal banks like cold-blooded Lincoln Logs.
My favorite unpaved, alligator-infested Big Cypress byway loops 25 miles off the Tamiami Trail into the deep Everglades. Encountering a panther or a bear is always a possibility. But seeing a reptile is almost a sure thing.”
The National Park Service website says that “Visitors with mobility impairments can access the visitor centers, restrooms throughout the preserve, campgrounds, and boardwalks. For visitors with hearing impairments, a variety of publications may be obtained at both visitor centers. Wayside exhibits with illustrations and text on natural and cultural features are situated throughout the Preserve and in the visitor centers.”
Everglades National Park “offers a variety of accessible facilities, services and programs including backcountry camping, front-country camping, boat tours, and assistive learning devices.” The website outlines accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing, the visually impaired, and visitors with mobility concerns.
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, Florida’s largest state park, is home to a variety of plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else in the continental United States.
Pure Florida rents boats and Jet Skis, runs fishing charters and eco, shelling, and dolphin tours. The Double Sunshine, an open-air, double-decker vessel, goes out three times a day and regularly accommodates travelers in wheelchairs. Pure Florida also frequently partners with Freedom Waters, a non-profit that provides therapeutic boat experiences to adults and children with special needs and veterans.