By Amy Wenk

Since 1975, the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care hospital in Buckhead, has been well known for providing medical care and rehabilitation to people with spinal cord injury and disease, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis, and other neuromuscular problems.

What is not as well known, perhaps, is the sports team program at the Shepherd Center, located at 2020 Peachtree Road.

With 12 teams and about 100 athletes, the hospital enables people with physical disabilities to participate in sports on a recreational or competitive level. In fact, the center sponsors the largest disabled sports program in North America.

With facilities including a full-size basketball court, an indoor track, a fitness center and a 25-yard indoor pool and adaptive equipment for every sport, Shepherd athletes receive world-class training.

“Shepherd sports teams have competed in local, national and international competitions,” sports team coordinator Matt Edens said. “This past season, the riflery team won the national title, the quad rugby team finished seventh at nationals, and the basketball team finished 17th at nationals.”

More than 20 athletes from the Shepherd Center have qualified to represent the United States during the past several Paralympics Games, winning multiple medals. Shepherd was the founding sponsor of the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics Games, bringing 3,310 athletes with disabilities from 104 nations to Atlanta.

In September, the hospital will send three athletes to the 2008 Paralympics Games in Beijing: wheelchair fencers Mark Calhoun and Benjy Williams and swimmer Curtis Lovejoy.

Mark Calhoun

Calhoun is a 25-year-old from Bremen who became interested in fencing in 2001. He went to the Atlanta Fencers Club in East Point to watch his brothers, James and David, practice.

“While there, I met a wheelchair fencer named Lisa Lanier and tried wheelchair fencing that night and really liked it,” said Calhoun, who suffered a stroke before he was born that resulted in right side hemi paresis, a mild form of cerebral palsy. “She is also who told me about the Shepherd Center.”

He began training at the Shepherd Center in 2002.

“Shepherd has given me the opportunity to train on a regular schedule in order to help me prepare for the Paralympics,” he said. “The facilities are top notch and give me the ability to work on all parts of fencing.

“With the help of the sports program at Shepherd, I have been able to realize a dream of mine, and I believe it can and will do the same for many others.”

Calhoun competes in the foil and saber events and has participated in World Cups all over the globe. He took seventh place in foil at the 2001 World Cup in Lanato, Italy, and third in saber at the Austin Zonal Championships in 2003. In 2007 he was the wheelchair men’s foil and saber national champion. He served as an alternate on the 2004 U.S. Paralympics team in Athens, Greece.

All of the training has led to the Paralympics in Beijing.

“I keep going from excited to nervous to excited,” Calhoun said. “The honor to represent my country in the Paralympic Games is something that not many people have a chance to do, and for this reason, it makes me so excited at times, I can barely sleep at night.”

Benjy Williams

Williams, of Winder, first came to the Shepherd Center in 1996 for rehabilitation after a severe automobile accident.

In 2003, while attending a sports camp at Shepherd, Williams was introduced to wheelchair fencing.

“It was something different,” the 43-year-old said. “It was challenging. I didn’t fence before my accident at all. I played basketball and baseball in high school.”

Williams quickly took to fencing and competed in the 2003 World Cup. He faced fencers from Europe, Hong Kong and China right before the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Since then, he has participated in many national and international events, traveling to Poland, Italy, Hungry, Spain, Canada and Hong Kong.

Williams competes with two weapons: the saber and the épée. He took first place in épée at the 2007 NAC Summer Nationals in Miami.

“When I went to Germany in January, I did pretty well, and it got me in the door,” Williams said.

He said he looks forward to his first Paralympic Games and credits the Shepherd Center — as well as his family, friends and Carter Hill Baptist Church — for his entry into the competition.

Curtis Lovejoy

In 1986, a horrific car accident paralyzed Atlanta native Lovejoy from the neck down, leaving him a quadriplegic.

“I was depressed,” the 51-year-old said. “The doctors told me I would never walk again. I went into a shell shock. That was the news I did not want to hear.”

His life turned around, however, once he started therapy at the Shepherd Center. Defying the odds, he soon walked between the parallel bars, then began aqua therapy.

“Water was therapy for me, even though I didn’t know how to swim,” Lovejoy said. “The therapists just put me in their arms and just floated me up and down the pool, just trying to get me to calm down and relax. Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t we see if I can learn to swim?’ So I put a life jacket on and was sitting in the pool. I started dreaming … of becoming this great swimmer one day and winning gold medals. God behold, I started dreaming, and the dreaming started becoming a reality.”

In 1995, Lovejoy broke his first world record in swimming. At that time, he also was introduced to wheelchair fencing.

“I am the first athlete to make both the U.S. Paralympic fencing team and swim team for three consecutive Paralympic Games,” he said. “I hold approximately 11 world records in swimming. There is no athlete that has done what I have done, especially coming from a quadriplegic point of view.

“It is just a miracle from God. I refused to accept what doctors told me I was going to be.”

At this year’s Paralympics, Lovejoy is hoping to break the 200-meter freestyle world record, the only record in his class he does not claim. Although he qualified for both swimming and fencing, Lovejoy chose to only compete in swimming to hone in on this goal.

He said the Shepherd Center has been a major factor in his success.

“Without Shepherd, I don’t know where I would be,” said Lovejoy, who trains at the center five days a week and coaches the swim team. “If it wasn’t for Shepherd, sports would not have entered my mind. They were the main outlet for me to engage in these different types of sports. Everything for me revolves around the Shepherd Center.”