Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs
An Evanston Township High School athlete had his hopes of running in a state meet likely dashed on Friday, after a federal appellate court held up a ruling that denied his request that the Illinois High School Association create a para-ambulatory division in track and field state championship meets.
ETHS senior Aaron Holzmueller has cerebral palsy, which limits him physically. In his initial lawsuit in February 2016, Holzmueller requested that the IHSA create a separate division with different time standards for para-ambulatory runners in the sectional and state championship track meets.
In July 2017, a district court judge ruled in favor of IHSA, stating that the athlete’s requests were not reasonable accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. After receiving the verdict, Holzmueller’s lawyers appealed the case to the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court’s ruling on Friday.
“Simply put, the qualifying times ensure that the State championship meet is reserved for the best and fastest runners in Illinois,” two of three judges wrote in their decision. “The odds are overwhelming that runners like (Holzmueller) would not meet the qualifying times even if they were not disabled.”
Aaron Holzmueller’s father Keith, who represented him in court, said the family was “disappointed” with the decision because it means his son likely won’t be able to compete in the state meet this year. Keith Holzmueller said his son is taking the ruling in stride because he always knew this outcome would be a possibility.
Keith Holzmueller added that added that as more states accommodate athletes with physical disabilities in championship meets, he hopes to see the same in Illinois.
“Not doing so is going against the wave of what’s going on elsewhere,” Keith Holzmueller said. “I hope that IHSA at some point adapts a different view of the situation.”
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said in a statement that the ruling does not “summarily prevent” the association from adding future participation opportunities.
Anderson added that the decision reinforces the idea that member schools, and not courts, should dictate the IHSA’s “mission and offerings.”
“The Illinois High School Association’s history is one of inclusion, as we have been successful in creating participation opportunities for millions of Illinois high school students, in both sports and activities, for over 100 years,” Anderson said in the statement.
Aaron Holzmueller has seen considerable success among athletes with disabilities, competing in the 400 meter run and the 800 meter run at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in 2016. The senior — who is also on the swimming team — will still be able to compete for ETHS at meets and train with his team.
Keith Holzmueller added that he was unsure whether the family would consider further legal action, and that they would rely on its legal team for counsel going forward.
The family’s pro bono attorney, Louis Fogel of Jenner & Block, said states like Louisiana have adopted state-qualifying time standards for para-ambulatory athletes that could similarly be adopted in Illinois. There are organizations in Illinois that “would be happy to” partner with IHSA to help develop those standards, he said.
Fogel said Aaron Holzmueller just wants a meaningful opportunity to compete, and although time may be running out for the senior, he has the opportunity to help other people down the road.
“Sometimes being the pioneer, you lay the foundation for people that come after you to enjoy the benefits,” Fogel said.
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