Inside Sam Spore's journey from Uganda to the Iowa wheelchair racing, track and field leaderboards

Alyssa Hertel
Des Moines Register

LA PORTE CITY — Sam Spore sits outside of the Union Community track and field tent, soaking in the sun on what's turned out to be a rare dry April day.

His neon green shirt stands in stark contrast to the black and red tent his teammates sit under. He looks up into the sun to say something to his dad and then rolls over to the fence dividing the spectator area and the track.

Spore watches as other athletes from other schools line up for their events. He won’t be competing today, despite having some of the top wheelchair track times in Iowa and holding the wheelchair shot-put state title.

Only a sophomore, Spore aged out of high school athletics last Wednesday.

But to understand Spore’s journey to Iowa track and field, you have to go back to when Chad and Heidi Spore first met Sam. You have to go to Uganda.

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Union High School sophomore Sam Spore, 20, watches athletes compete in the shot-put during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

Using a wheelbarrow as a wheelchair in a Uganda orphanage 

The Spores adopted a son, Cooper, from Rwanda in 2009 and, in 2011, decided they wanted to pursue the adoption process again. They weren’t in Uganda to meet Sam, though, but rather two other children, Caleb and Hannah.

“We went to Uganda and were in the process of adopting who would be Sam’s brother and sister when we met Sam,” Chad Spore told the Register. “There was one thing about Sam that really touched our hearts.”

Sam was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly, and hydrocephalus, which is fluid on the brain. So, Sam was using a wheelchair when the Spores came to the orphanage in Uganda.

Or, at least he was supposed to be.

Union High School sophomore Sam Spore, 20, poses for a portrait during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

“His wheelchair was being repaired, which evidently happened quite frequently, that those things broke down,” Chad said. “So, they basically used a wheelbarrow to take Sam from one area and back, and I got the opportunity to push Sam.

“(I) just realized from that standpoint that his life even in an orphanage was pretty limited. Come to find out too he had a lot of medical-related issues that would impact him, and then to just know that once he aged out of the orphanage, his prospect for life after that was pretty limited in Uganda.”

At first, the Spores advocated for other families to adopt Sam. But eventually, they realized that Sam was the missing piece in their family.

Today, Sam remembers a few things from Uganda. Especially the heat. It was a stark contrast to when he first arrived in Chicago in February, the Midwest cold welcoming him to the United States.

“I wasn’t even expecting the cold,” he said. “I was like, 'I better put on three coats and just march out there.' When I went out the door, I just turned back around, but my grandfather said, ‘It’s not going to get any better.’ So, I just had to suck it up and move out.”

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Wheelchair basketball first, high school track and field second

After his not-so-literally-warm welcome to the U.S., Spore started to adjust to his new life. First came a few surgeries. Then, eventually, came sports.

Spore got his start with an organization called SportAbililty of Iowa, which has since merged with Adaptive Sports Iowa. It was at adaptive sports camps that Spore was introduced to wheelchair basketball, track and field, tennis, and sitting volleyball, among other activities.

Despite his current success in track and field, Spore loves basketball most.

“Basketball is number one,” Spore said, admitting that some of that has to do with being able to play indoors in the winter.

That doesn’t mean Spore hasn’t learned to love track and field. The key word there is learned, because even though it’s been an uphill battle for Spore, he’s learned on the fly and turned into quite the high school track star in just two seasons.

Chad Spore, center, and his son son Sam, 20, a Union High School sophomore, right, watch the shot-put competition during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

The leap from camp sports to high school sports wasn’t seamless. For both Spore and Union head coach Scott Denner, there was a bit of a learning curve.

Racing wheelchairs have a mechanism called an accumulator, which allows Spore to either set the wheel to straight or to turn when he’s going around curves. In his first meet and his first time competing in the 200-meter race, Spore came around the corner and was supposed to kick the accumulator back to the straight position.

He forgot.

Instead of maintaining his speed on the straightaway, Spore went full speed off the track and into the grass.

“I don’t know how fast I was going,” Spore recalled between chuckles. “But I heard my dad and my coach yell, ‘Shift the break.’ So, I was like ‘What?’ and I just kept pushing, and I forgot to hit the bottom brake to turn the wheel. When I looked forward, I was rolling in the infield.”

When asked about what’s changed in the past year or so, Spore is quick to point out that he’s better at not losing control and not going off the track.

Union High School sophomore Sam Spore, 20, makes his way towards the shot-put competition during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

But Spore isn’t the only one who had to learn something new. Denner learned how to coach a wheelchair athlete.

“The first couple times he was in the chair, it was just awkward for both of us to be honest with you,” Denner said. “But it started with 100 meters. Can we stay in the lane for 100 meters? That was a big hurdle right there, and then we got that down.

“Then we started working on corners and worked from the 100 to the 200. Probably about halfway through last year, we finally got a 400-meter race in.”

Denner gives a lot of credit to Chad Spore, who has become a sort of volunteer coach, helping him understand what Spore needs. The coach and athlete have grown in the sport together, to the point where Denner now holds down Spore’s shot-put chair when he throws.

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A high school career cut short as a 20-year-old sophomore

In just two high school track and field seasons, Spore has emerged as one of the top wheelchair athletes in the state. He holds the third-best times this season in the 100- and 200-meter races and is second behind only Northwood-Kensett senior Wyatt Willand in the 400. He is one of a handful of wheelchair athletes that participates in shot put, in which he has a season-high throw of over 18 feet.

But Spore won’t compete in any more high school track meets during his time at Union. He participated in his last event at the Oelwein Huskies Invitational on Tuesday, April 19, one day before his 20th birthday.

According to the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa High School Athletic Association, “all contestants must be under 20 years of age” to be eligible to compete in high school athletics.

Spore was adopted around his 12th birthday, but he hadn’t attended school at all in Uganda until he was about 9, according to Chad. That meant when Spore moved to the U.S., he was enrolled in third grade.

“(We) felt it was the best chance for him and that it was a great opportunity for him to adjust,” Chad said.

So, despite only being a sophomore, Spore isn’t allowed to compete at the high school level anymore because of his age. The family’s attempts to appeal the rules were unsuccessful.

Spore will miss the final five meets of the season. No Drake Relays. No state track meet. No chance to defend his shot-put state title.

On Tuesday, April 19, he was a high school athlete. Two days later, he watched from the sidelines as his teammates — or former teammates — competed in the Denver Boys Invitational.

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Sam Spore is the ultimate team player

With the sun out in full force and the wind kept to a minimum at the Denver track meet, it would’ve been a perfect day for a race. It is a perfect day for Spore’s teammates, who are happy to have him on the sidelines.

Spore watches through the chain link fence as some of Union’s athletes compete. Danson Moody, also a sophomore, stands behind Spore’s chair. Moody rests his arm on Spore’s head. The two exchange fake karate chops, then stand in silence looking out at the track. Moody watches as Spore explains how his racing and shot-put chairs work.

Union High School's Danson Moody, 16, and Sam Spore, 20, hang out near the track during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

Moody pushes down on the handles and lifts the front wheels off the grass. He shakes the wheelchair slightly and Spore extends his arms out, pretending to be an airplane in midflight. Spore laughs until, as soon as it began, the flight is over. 

As teammates filter back and forth between the track and the Union tent, none go by without slapping Spore’s shoulders or stopping to ask him about what his personal record in the shot-put is. He doesn’t know off the top of his head, looking to Chad for the exact number.

Sure, Spore has made a name for himself as one of Iowa’s best wheelchair track athletes. But his participation in high school track and field was never about winning awards. It was always about being a part of the team.

So, even though he can’t compete, Spore still wants to be at meets, supporting his teammates and helping the coaches in whatever way he can. For Denner, just having Spore around is helpful enough.

Denner has a hard time pinning down one memory with Spore that sticks out. He brings up when Spore came in as an eighth-grader for a pull-ups test, and he did 20 in front of Union’s weightlifters. He remembers when Spore set a personal record in a downpour, and him taking his gloves off mid-race because they were slipping on the wheels.

Union High School sophomore Sam Spore, 20, shows off his racing chair during the 2022 Denver Boys Track Invitational at the Denver Athletic Complex Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Denver.

“Sam in general, he’s just an amazing kid,” Denner said. “He’s always smiling, always happy and I genuinely mean that. A lot of times, it gets said that somebody always has a smile on their face, but he genuinely does.

“People just gravitate to him because of his personality. Sam is the ultimate jokester on the team, always playing pranks on people. He’s just phenomenal to have on the team. A great, great human being.”

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What comes next for Sam Spore?

Spore’s high school career may be over, but that doesn’t mean this is the last track and field fans will see of him. For now, though, he’s in a bit of a weird period: Spore has aged out of high school sports, but, with only a couple years of experience, he’s not quite fast enough to race with the adult Paralympic athletes that will be at Drake Relays.

He’ll return to his wheelchair basketball team. That’s the sport he’d still pick over track and field. But Spore is looking ahead, not quite ready to give up track and field just yet.

“My next goal is to find some other wheelchair track team for adults,” he said. “Maybe see what they could show me and what type of stuff they do and see what I can learn.”

Alyssa Hertel is a college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at ahertel@dmreg.com or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.