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The amazing Anjali

Natick woman shares her inspiration as top paralympic athlete

(Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe)
By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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She begins: “My name is Anjali Forber-Pratt and I am an athlete. . . I use a wheelchair to get around because my legs do not work the same as other people’s. I got sick when I was a baby. So I cannot feel my legs or stand up or walk . . .’’

The words are from a children’s book that Forber-Pratt coauthored to inspire young disabled athletes.

Here’s what the 26-year-old from Natick can do: Win a bronze medal in the 400-meter wheelchair event at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing; win two gold medals (100 and 200 meters) and a bronze (400 meters) in the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro; win skiing events; play sled hockey; play basketball. Whatever you got, count Anjali in.

Her next goal is to qualify for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Wheelchair or no, there is hardly anything athletic that Forber-Pratt can’t do.

“You have to look past the chair,’’ says Jeff Stone, a former physical education teacher in the Natick school system, where he first met Forber-Pratt when she was a sixth-grader. Says Stone, “She’s a world-class athlete.’’

Her story begins in Calcutta, where she was abandoned by her mother shortly after birth. At 3 months old, she was adopted by Natick residents Rosalind and Larry Forber-Pratt. Two months after they brought Anjali home, she got sick. “I came down with flu symptoms,’’ she says.

She was rushed to the hospital. They found out it was transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that affects the spinal cord. She wasn’t expected to live. “The doctors had written me off,’’ she says. But they hadn’t taken her heart and mind into account.

Still, she was paralyzed from the waist down. “This wheel chair,’’ says Forber-Pratt, “is all I’ve ever known.’’ She never blinked. “I always told people I’d outgrow my disability.’’

“It never seemed to get in her way,’’ says Natick High vice principal Zach Galvin, who had Forber-Pratt in his American literature class in 2001. “Being in a wheelchair never slowed her down.’’

Galvin had suffered from cancer, he said, and “there were things about Anjali that motivated me.’’

She was a fighter, and even took on the high school, which she contended was not accessible to disabled students. Galvin was a sympathizer, she recalls, but few others were. “I was facing resistance. One teacher said, ‘Why are you looking into honors class? You can’t go to college anyway.’ It was frustrating.’’

She filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Natick school district in federal court in September 2000. As part of a settlement, the district agreed to correct a number of accessibility deficiencies at the high school.

By her senior year, she says, “there was a great deal of positive change. There were elevators and ramps. The entire administration changed.’’

“It raised awareness,’’ her mother says.

But there was also a backlash. “It was hard to make friends during the lawsuit,’’ Anjali says.

She found refuge at Camp Arrowhead, on the banks of Lake Cochituate, where she had a 20-year relationship as a camper, counselor and volunteer. She became an inspiration to the special needs kids. They had a soul mate in a wheelchair.

“Camp Arrowhead was a huge part of who I was for many years. It was time for a kid to learn how to be independent,’’ she says. It was impossible to conceive just how far she would take it. “My parents taught me if you want to achieve something, there’s a way to do it.’’

The notion that Anjali could be an athlete was sparked when she saw the Boston Marathon wheelchair competitors. “I was five. We’d watch from the Boden Lane bridge off Route 135.’’

At 6, she began visiting the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, which offered weekend sports activities for disabled children. Soon she was wheelchair racing and downhill skiing.

“She wanted to push the limits physically,’’ says her mother. At 7 Anjali got a racing chair. At 9 she won a national competition.

She skied nationally in her mid-teens, using a custom-made mono-ski, and trained at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire with able-bodied skiers. When she began racing against disabled athletes, she says, “there wasn’t a lot of competition. I’d just show up and win.’’

She branched out to national competition and had several first-place finishes. In 1999 she won a gold medal in the giant slalom in the junior division at the Disabled World Cup in Breckenridge, Colo.

Road racing fascinated Forber-Pratt. When she was 13, she broke both arms in a race in Lexington. It was a rainy day in October. “The leaves were wet. The chair skidded going down a hill. I ran into a stone house.’’ Not for a moment did she think, maybe this isn’t for her.

She enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a school she says “that’s open to working with athletes with disabilities.’’ She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and is working on her doctorate in human resource education while serving as a graduate teaching assistant.

It was at a national training site in Tempe, Ariz., that Forber-Pratt qualified for the 2008 Paralympics. The team trained in Okinawa, where she set an American record in the 4x100 relay, took a bronze in the 400, finished fourth in the 200 and sixth in the 100.

The magnitude of the event, says Anjali, “didn’t hit me until a couple of days before my competition in China. I was outside training, and looked back and saw the stadium in full bloom. I saw the flame. I thought, oh my God, I’m at the Paralympics!’’

When the competition began, in front of 91,000 spectators, “my challenge was to block it out. Be calm. It comes down to who can block out the distractions. It’s easy to become overwhelmed.’’

But it’s almost impossible to overwhelm Anjali. “She has no fear, there’s no mountain she can’t climb,’’ says the head of Natick’s Parks and Recreation Department, Dick Cugini, who met Anjali at Camp Arrowhead. “She just stands out. Her presence, her friendliness, everything about her. She’s very charismatic.’’

Stone, now Suffolk University’s head athletic trainer, recalls Anjali arriving at class at Kennedy Middle School one day in a titanium wheelchair developed by Bob Hall, a pioneer wheelchair competitor. “That’s when I knew she was serious about racing. She had a purpose. And nothing was going to stop her.’’

Anjali will compete in next year’s Boston Marathon for the first time.

“There are no limits, no barriers for her,’’ says Cugini.

“There’s a spirit about her that motivates other people,’’ says Galvin. “People want to be around her.’’ Galvin has a photo of Anjali in his office. “She’s always on my mind.’’

Next month, Anjali will be in New Zealand to compete in the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships, another step to qualifying for the 2012 Games in London.

The scope of who Anjali is goes beyond the boundaries of competition. She’s returned to India twice and helped get an orphanage started for disabled girls; traveled the United States to talk with wounded soldiers; gone into schools for blind and deaf children; traveled to West Africa to get an orphanage started and help develop a paralympic program.

“She loves to get people active, fully involved in life,’’ says her mother. The Forber-Pratts have a son, Ian, 30, who was also adopted from India and is now a social worker who makes frequent visits to his birthplace. Anjali and Ian are close, and look for opportunities to meet up during their travels.

The book in the “Color, Learn & Play’’ series that Anjali worked on is called “All About Sports for Athletes With Physical Disabilities.’’ She writes, “There is no difference between what I do and what other athletes do. I practice racing six days a week. Sometimes I get injured. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. Just like everyone else.’’

Except she’s not like everyone else. Her spirit, magnetism, and transcendent glow — that smile! — set her apart. She’s kicked aside the obstacles, and they’ve been many. How she’s lived her life makes her unforgettable.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.