Riding alongside Joe Ray as he drives his boat across Lay Lake, one would think he has been boating and skiing his entire life. For something that comes so naturally to Ray, the executive director of Adaptive Aquatics, it’s hard to believe his first time on water skis was after he became disabled. His story is more than a calling; it’s a life-changing journey that has enabled him to help thousands of people across the country through water sports.
Ray was 20 years old when he suffered injuries from a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. In 1982, he visited Camp ASCCA on Lake Martin for the first time, attending a camp for adults with disabilities. There, he met Phil Martin, the founder of a nonprofit water sports organization called Adaptive Aquatics.
“He asked if I wanted to try water skiing, and I said there would be no way I could ski,” Ray remembers. “Now, those are the same words I hear from my students.”
As Ray continued to ski, his passion for the sport led to something much greater. “I wanted to show others they could do this too, give them the same confidence and show them their lives could be changed,” Ray says.
He became an instructor, and started a parallel program in Birmingham. When Martin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, they decided to merge the programs and Ray became executive director of Adaptive Aquatics.
That was more than 30 years ago and the Adaptive Aquatics that attracts people from across the country today continues to carry out the mission on which it was founded: dedicated to the introduction, teaching and advancement of adapted water sports for disabled children, adults and injured service members.
Ray and his team serve about 1,000 people each year, providing instruction through clinics and workshops from April to October. Through the use of specialized equipment and expert instruction, the program offers individuals with disabilities independence and confidence as they experience water sports and accomplish goals they would not think possible.
“We are not here for just water sports,” Ray explains. “It’s about changing people’s attitudes, thinking outside the box, pushing limits and enabling people to realize they can be more than they thought they could be.”
Ray and his team provide tubing, water skiing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and pontoon boat rides for their students, who range in age from 2 years old to their mid-80s. Originally hosting clinics in his “backyard” at Lay Lake, Ray raised money for 13 years for the facility he runs there today.
Volunteers from the community and across Lay Lake, along with the Lakeshore Foundation, team up to help Ray host clinics.
“Most of the people on the lake know about me and what I do. They offer to help and are always welcome here,” he says. “It’s all about neighbors lending a hand here, whether giving boat rides or helping with events.”
Adaptive Aquatics has taught skiers with a broad range of disabilities, including individuals with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, kernicterus, acquired brain injuries, amputations, special needs and visual impairments.
“It doesn’t matter how severe the disability, you can still ski,” says Ray as he recalls stories of life-changing moments he has witnessed on the lake.
One of those stories is of Darshan Patel, a 10th-grade student in Birmingham. Due to hydrocephalus, a condition of increased fluid on the brain, Darshan is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair.
“Many people encouraged us to get Darshan involved with Joe’s program,” explains Darshan’s mother, Nalini. “I asked every doctor he had, and every single one told us to go and have a good time. I knew I couldn’t say no.”
The family traveled to Lay Lake and as Darshan skied for the first time, Nalini recalls never seeing her son smile bigger than in that moment.
“It was the greatest experience of our lives hands down. We were crying tears of joy from the boat as we watched him,” Nalini recalls. “To see him do something we never thought he would do was an amazing experience.”
Darshan, whose vocabulary is up to 70 words, couldn’t stop repeating, “More, more, more,” from his skis.
He has been skiing with Ray for four years. Like many families, the Patels are grateful for Ray. “He does this because he loves it, and he really has a passion for this,” Nalini says.
Through the Lakeshore Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project, veterans also enjoy the water sports offered by Ray and his team. Sometimes, they bring their families, traveling from across the country.
During the Operation Down Home camp this summer, Sgt. Randy McMillan of Birmingham and his family swam, skied and tubed together.
“It’s great for my family to experience this; they can’t wait to get back,” says McMillan, who lost both of his legs to an infection from a foot injury. McMillan has served in both the National Guard and the Army.
Ray also trains competitive skiers for national and global competitions. One of Ray’s students, James McLemore of Montgomery, won the Disabled Water Ski National Championship for slalom in 2012.
McLemore, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, lost his eyesight as a teenager. His mother, Laura McLemore, says Adaptive Aquatics has been a healing experience.
“Being on a beautiful lake, experiencing the sun and wind is restorative to all of us. But at that particular time, the restoration I felt, and I believe James experienced as well, during our first trip to Adaptive Aquatics was like medicine,” she says. “I had a renewed sense of hope, well being and inclusiveness. Our circle widened, James met people with their own stories, and they had a bond that has helped us all remember that beauty, fun, laughter and yes, joy, continues even in the midst of illness and loss.”
Like the athletes he has trained, adaptive water skiing has opened more doors for Ray than he imagined. Ray holds seven world records and 11 world championship titles in waterskiing, having traveled to Australia, Belgium, France and Italy for competitions.
“It wasn’t until I was disabled that I found I was a natural-born athlete. It sparked a flame in me,” says Ray who has run three Boston marathons and holds titles in wheelchair basketball, tennis and roadrunning.”
The humble athlete reiterates that’s not his program’s focus and wants to motivate others through his successes. “My message is never ever let go of your dreams, you never know what you can accomplish.” Ray says.