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Friday, September 23, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rolling Past Limitations -- Meeting Jim Knaub Five Years Ago Helped Amberly Austin Find The Drive To Overcome Her Limits. Now 13, She's A Top Junior Wheelchair Racer.

They may have only partial use of their legs or their arms. They may be limited in areas that other people take for granted.

But, like everyone else, their dreams are full and boundless.

The dream for Renton's Amberly Austin, whose legs have been weakened since birth by spina bifida, began five years ago when she met Jim Knaub, one of the world's top paraplegic wheelchair racers.

Amberly's world then was as confining as her wheelchair. "Her exercise consisted of being pulled in a cart behind us while we rode bikes," said John Austin, Amberly's father.

Then the family went to a sports-equipment show at Edmundson Pavilion and became interested in Knaub's sleek racing wheelchair.

"Jim put her in one of those chairs, she pushed around a little bit and it was like her whole world opened up," John said. ` "Bing! I can do this. I don't have to ride anymore.' "

Knaub eventually gave Amberly one of the first racing chairs he designed so she could begin competing. Since then, she's been on a roll.

She has qualified four times for the Junior Nationals. Last year she placed second in the 400-meter race for ages 10-12 in Columbus, Ohio, and no worse than fourth in her other races.

"I like to push on my own, be really competitive and race people," said Amberly, 13, who gained not only more self-reliance from the sport but self-esteem.

Amberly, Knaub and hundreds of others will compete tomorrow in the Wheels of Fire race in Bellevue. The 8-kilometer wheelchair race begins at 8:10 a.m., followed by an 8K run and 4K walk and a slalom course for power wheelchair users. The race course runs through the Medina, Bellevue and Clyde Hill neighborhoods.

Knaub, 38, a five-time winner of the Boston Marathon wheelchair division, is one of the favorites. In more ways than one.

"He's like a hero to me," Amberly said. "I just wish I could go as fast as he does."

Knaub is fast, by any measure. He holds the world record in every race distance from 5,000 meters to the marathon. He has traveled as fast as 52 mph.

Knaub was an Olympic-caliber pole vaulter before becoming a paraplegic after a 1978 motorcycle accident. He then rechanneled his competitive spirit to wheelchair racing.

That was a time when wheelchairs used in races were the same found in hospitals - big-wheeled, bulky and about 40 pounds. Today, with Knaub developing some of the technology, racing chairs weigh about 13 pounds.

Knaub is committed to the sport, but he's also dedicated to people such as Amberly.

"They may not be competitive but racing might spark something inside them that can give them the confidence to do other things in life," he said.

It works both ways. Knaub says his spirit is lifted in return. He tells the story of a 6-year-old Australian girl, Holly Ladmore, whom he met during a race in Sydney a few years ago. He had two tire blowouts near the race's end and stopped in front of the wheelchair-bound Holly and her parents.

"I gave her my helmet and for weeks after that her parents told me she hardly would take it off," said Knaub, who also gave her a racing wheelchair.

"I went back the next year and had a huge lead then got a flat in exactly the same spot. I said, `This is too much, I'm quitting,' " he said. "Then I looked up and I saw Holly on her first lap on the twice-around course and I broke down. Looking at her push like that, I was ashamed that I had decided to quit.

"So I went back on the course, and it was tough with a flat going up hills and on some cobblestone roads, but I ended up winning."

Knaub says that's what makes his role as the Michael Jordon of wheelchair racing so satisfying. Even though his coaching and inspiration have developed racers who might end up beating him, it's worth it.

"The message is, `I can dream. I can achieve. And it's OK to have a disability.' "

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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