Coaches are always on the lookout for new talent. But this scouting mission was a little different.
While Levi Klingler and the rest of Ada’s track team were practicing, the Bulldogs’ coach Greg Grimslid used to see Klingler’s younger brother Danny zipping around the park in his wheelchair.
“He looked really fast even in a regular wheelchair,” Grimslid said.
That speed will come into play at the state track meet this weekend when Klingler, in a racing wheelchair, and Van Wert’s Tyler Priest, in a chair designed for shot putters, become two of the first athletes ever to compete in a wheelchair division at the state meet.
Ohio is one of 15 states with wheelchair competition for high school students as part of its state meet. Ten boys and one girl met the qualifying standards and will compete at Ohio State’s Jesse Owens Track.
Priest’s only event will be the shot put. Klingler will be in the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter dash.
The OHSAA board of directors approved wheelchair events last June at the urging of the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches.
The coaches association’s proposal got a very positive reception, said Chagrin Falls boys track coach David Kirk, who was one of the coaches who presented the idea to the OHSAA.
“I can remember at one of the first meetings, Dr. Ross (OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross) looked up and said, ‘Is this good for kids?’ I was like, ‘Yes sir, I think it is.’ And we were done, the conversation was over.
“One of the things people are kind of amazed at is how fast this happened in Ohio,” Kirk said.
Klingler, a junior, was born with spina bifida and became a standout wheelchair basketball player when he was younger.
Priest, also a junior, played football and baseball and wrestled before a 2008 farm accident and an auto accident in 2010 caused life-changing injuries.
While they are part of something historic, both say they don’t see themselves as playing a trailblazer’s role.
“It’s just something I’m doing,” Priest said. “I don’t consider it special but others may.”
Klingler said, “Obviously, I’m kind of spotlighted for it, coming from a small town and being the only wheelchair participant from this town. It’s a privilege being able to compete.
“It (the attention) is kind of overwhelming at times but I’m kind of used to being looked at. I’ve gotten kind of used to sticking out,” he said.
Priest and Klingler both come from athletic families.
Tyler’s dad Bob Priest was Van Wert’s head football coach from 2007-2011 and also has coached track and wrestling. Klingler’s mother, Melissa (Wolber) Klingler was a basketball and volleyball player at Ada High School.
Klinger grew up with two older siblings — a sister, Autumn, who is three years older, and a brother, Levi, who is a year older. He also had several cousins around his age in Ada.
Melissa Klingler says, “Of my three, he’s probably the most competitive, though Levi is pretty competitive.
“He probably wasn’t two years old yet and the other two would play outside and he would get frustrated because he couldn’t keep up with them. He would crawl and finally get to where they were playing and they’d be done and go someplace else, but he wouldn’t give up.
“I have a twin and another sister who is a year and a half younger and we had all our kids together. We have nine kids and none of them will give Daniel a break for anything. I think that’s why he’s the way he is,” she said.
To get to the state track meet, an athlete had to meet a qualifying standard.
For Priest in the shot put, it was 9 feet. He hit that with a throw of 9 feet, 10 inches at the Western Buckeye League meet. His distance is sixth out of the seven state qualifiers.
Klingler’s time of 19.64 seconds is fourth among the eight qualifiers in the 100-meter dash and his 1:20.79 in the 400 meters is fifth out of eight qualifiers.
The wheelchair 100-meter dash is scheduled at 9:40 a.m. Saturday and the 400 meters will be at 2:05 p.m. The shot put competition begins at noon.
Bob Priest, who coaches the throwing events for Van Wert’s track teams, said starting the wheelchair events this year “opened a door” for Tyler.
“After Tyler’s initial accident, he came back and wrestled. Wrestling was the only sport that had any kind of adaptations. His condition started to deteriorate a little, so wrestling was out. But this really opened a door for him.
“I basically said, ‘You’re going to do this and we’ll see how the first year goes and if you don’t like it, we’ll re-evaluate. But it has worked out well. Over a four-week period he basically doubled his distance.”
Tyler Priest says it wasn’t easy when he started throwing the 12-pound shot put. “It felt like I was throwing a car,” he said. His goal at state is to throw 12 feet.
The wheelchair events also opened another door for the Priests — the chance to be coach and player as well as father and son.
“That was one of the dreams we always had and that was lost, but here is an opportunity for us to have that,” Bob Priest said. “It’s been fun. It has given us an opportunity to do something together that we always looked forward to.”
Klingler plays wheelchair basketball for the Turnstone Flyers in Fort Wayne, Ind. and also played several other sports growing up.
“I tried tennis when I was little. I wasn’t bad at it but my heart wasn’t really with it,” he said. “I tried swimming and it was the same as tennis, I just wasn’t feeling it. Track is getting in there. If state goes well, it will probably be up there with basketball for me.
“It (track) was kind of shaky at the start but once I got the hang of it and got a more legit chair, my time really improved and it’s been improving ever since.”
The hope is that from this year’s beginning, wheelchair events, like the competitors, will grow and continue to improve.
When the wheelchair events were approved, OHSAA commissioner Dan Ross left open the possibility of adding other sports.
“We will start with this sport and see where the board wants to go,” he said.