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01.26.05 Shared Adventures Web Site

‘There’s no excuses’
Paraplegic diver demonstrates what Shared Adventures program is all about

By Kimberly White
Sentinel correspondent

During his six-week stay at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Marv Tuttle made a list of all the things he was convinced he would never do again: woodworking, cooking, dining in his favorite restaurants, attending Giants games. The list went on and on. By the time he was done, he had filled three entire pages, single-spaced, on legal-sized paper.

"I just figured there was no way a guy in a wheelchair was ever going to be able to do this stuff," recalls Tuttle, a 54-year-old San Jose resident who grew up in Santa Cruz and became a paraplegic after an August, 1998 motorcycle accident.

Now, almost six years later, everything on that list — including scuba diving — has been crossed off.

Tuttle, who graduated from Soquel High in 1967, regularly dives along the Monterey Peninsula and is one of only two disabled volunteer divers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Every other Saturday, he and Steve Lyon, a 47-year-old paraplegic, spend three hours cleaning the glass at various exhibits, siphoning algae from the bottoms and performing fish-feeding shows for members of the public.

So on Saturday, when Tuttle wheels himself down the plywood planks leading to Cowell Beach for the 12th annual Shared Adventures "Day on the Beach" — an event that enables people with disabilities to try out activities such as surfing, kayaking, outrigger canoeing and scuba diving — he will be living testimony that the disabled can lead just as active lives as their able-bodied counterparts.

Among other things, he will provide moral support for those who want to go diving.

"It’s one thing for an able-bodied person to tell you that you can do it, but it’s quite another for a person in a chair to tell you that you can do it — all of a sudden, there’s no excuses," he says.

‘A lucky paraplegic’

Every spinal-cord injury is different, and everyone recovers differently, and to different degrees, depending on the amount of nerve damage involved. Tuttle, who has partial, but limited use of his legs, wears fins to help maintain buoyancy and says aquarium visitors often can’t tell he is disabled.

Over the last six years, he has regained some movement and, with the use of forearm crutches, can stand and walk for short periods of time. He attributes his improvement to frequent workouts, "and certainly my swimming and scuba diving have been wonderful for both body and mind. I’m a lucky paraplegic, and I try not to waste that luck."

However, Lyon — who had been diving for about a year prior to his October, 2000 motorcycle accident — is completely paralyzed from the chest down and uses only booties while diving. Using his buoyancy control vest, or BC, his drysuit and breath-control techniques, he is able to maneuver around and hover both vertically and horizontally.

"The only way that I can maintain a particular level, or get to a certain level, is to use my hands," Lyon says. "I think Marv and I are some of the best people at buoyancy control (at the aquarium) because we have to be."

Despite his active involvement in the diving community and various peer-support groups for the newly disabled, Tuttle was not always such a diving fool. He was certified to dive back in 1971, but stuck with it for only a couple of years before putting it on the backburner; before his accident, he hadn’t actually been in the water with his gear in almost 30 years.

But while recuperating at the hospital, he enrolled in a recreational-therapy program and learned about an organization called Shared Adventures. The Santa Cruz-based non-profit, devoted to bringing the outdoors to people with disabilities, organizes 20-30 outings throughout the year, with the highlight being "Day on the Beach."

By design, the event falls on the third Saturday of each July. On July 17, 1978, at the age of 17, Shared Adventures founder Foster Andersen was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic.

A Shared beginning

Intrigued to find out how he would fare without the use of his legs, Tuttle found himself at Cowell’s in July of 2000, surrounded by diving gear — BCs, regulators and wrist-mounted computers — that hadn’t even existed in the ’70s.

Most everyone else at the beach that day was floundering around and frightened, but "I got in the water with complete equipment on, and it was like riding a bicycle — off I went," he says.

Doug Colacicco, a volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was helping out at the event that day and saw how well Tuttle adapted underwater. Colacicco later asked if he’d be interested in enrolling in a wheelchair-diver volunteer program the aquarium soon would be starting.

"I said, ‘Wow, I mean, obviously I’d love to do that, but I haven’t really dove in years, I don’t know all the new equipment, the new technology,’ " Tuttle recalls. "He said, ‘Well, get re- certified and let us know.’"

Off Tuttle went to San Jose State University, where he hooked up with an organization that teaches the disabled how to scuba dive. After getting re-certified in October of 2001, he completed a written test, diving test and physical at the aquarium, and has been volunteering ever since.

"The whole thing stems back to that experience that day on ‘Day on the Beach,’" he adds. "That had to happen, because then that guy wouldn’t have seen me and nothing would have ever come of it."

And when others see Tuttle suiting up Saturday, much more can continue to come of it.

"That’s part of our mission, to let able-bodied people know we’re not just drooling, blithering idiots," Tuttle said. "Our bodies might be broken, but we’re still out here doing stuff."

Contact Kim White at sports@santacruzsentinel.com

Foster Andersen, founder of Shared Adventures; http://paralinks.net/paralinksarchives/foster_anderson.html