High school pep rallies are almost always the same – loud kids, painted faces and pompoms. But at a recent rally at Cardozo High School, handball playing freshman Fabrizio Shao made an entrance that no one had ever seen before.
“The crowd went nuts,” said coach Lenny Levin.
Shao, who lives without the ability to walk, led his handball team to the middle of Cardozo’s gym walking on his hands with his wheelchair hoisted over his head using only his arm power. Shao knew he would draw a lot of attention with a stunt like that – playing to the crowd appeals to him, just like playing to the handball wall.
“I didn’t know anything about handball when I first saw it,” said Shao, 17, who lost the ability to walk after an accident when he was 8 months old. “I went to the park once with my dog and saw people playing. I just thought it was really cool and interesting.”
Handball wasn’t the only mystery to the young Shao, who was born in Romania and came to America on numerous occasions for physical therapy. When he was 14, Shao and his family settled in Queens permanently, taking up residence in College Point.
It was there in College Point, at McNeil’s Park, where Shao first came across handball. However, it was at Cardozo High School where his passing fancy for the game evolved into a fully engaged passion.
“It’s like the saying, ‘you get hungry while you eat,’” he said. “The more I played the more I realized that I’m good and I should keep it up.”
After Shao showed an interest in the sport, Cardozo’s athletic director called the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) to check if there were any restrictions against a wheelchair-bound handball player. There weren’t any such restrictions.
Shao now plays on Cardozo’s handball practice squad, with his skill and enthusiasm for the game making his teammates that much better at kills and digs. Coach Levin said that Shao’s role on the team is far more than just a bench novelty – he is an intricate part of the team.
“When I met Fabrizio, I saw a kid who was as serious as they come,” said Levin. “He loves the game and he has a real passion for it. Just being there he gives the other kids a real boost.”
The coach went on to say that Shao is more than just “there.” Watching him practice, Shao is a force on the court. He can get to just about any ball that comes his way and he is a serious competitor. After missing a shot he felt he should have had, Shao lets out groans of self-dissatisfaction.
And on the very next volley, he makes up for his miscue with an expertly executed kill.
Shao also shows his precision skills on the basketball court. He plays with the Long Island Lightning in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) and travels throughout the country competing in tournaments.
A future in basketball, even one with a college scholarship, isn’t enough to shift Shao’s focus away from his current handball responsibilities at Cardozo.
“Even though it’s not a popular sport, for me handball is the greatest sport out there,” he said. “So many sports are similar, but handball stands alone. You have to play it to know why it’s great.”
Before this article went to press, Cardozo’s handball team was defeated in the PSAL playoffs. Despite the loss, it’s easy to imagine next year’s pep rally – screaming teens, pompoms and an amped up Shao walking on his hands.
“Any disabled person out there that thinks they can’t do something, I just use myself as an example,” he said. “I play sports. I do whatever I want. Disability will never hold me back.”