By JENNIFER MEIER
For more than an hour, NorthWood High School senior Brittney Martin left her wheelchair by the side of a large tank in the Denver aquarium, donned scuba gear and went face to face with sharks, barracudas, sea turtles and a variety of other fish.
This was no typical family vacation, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Martin and another teen, 19-year-old Jonathon Wallace of Chicago, to complete the last few dives that would earn them their scuba-diving certifications.
The opportunity was funded by Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority in partnership with Riley’s Children Foundation, A-1 Scuba and Travel Aquatics Center, the Denver Aquarium and the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.
Martin, who has spina bifida, and Wallace, who has cerebral palsy, are just the third group of students to complete the program.
The journey to receive her scuba certification began several years ago at Camp Riley at Bradford Woods near Martinsville. The camp offers traditional activities for children ages 8-18 with disabilities.
“I can’t imagine how it would be now if it weren’t for Camp Riley,” Martin said. “One of my counselor’s was also in a wheelchair and I really got to learn what it was like to live independently.”
Through the seven years that Martin attended camp, she was able to try a variety of activities including horseback riding, rock wall climbing, water skiing and scuba diving.
And before she aged out of the camp, the directors chose her to be a representative for Riley, talking about her camp experiences at the annual Board of Governor’s Luncheon at the James Witcomb Riley Home in Indianapolis.
It was there that Martin was offered the chance to receive her scuba certification. On Valentine’s Day, Martin, her mother Dori, 10-year-old brother Treyton and her grandmother Becky Hochstetler boarded a plane and headed to Denver.
Also on board was Maureen Manier, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for Riley’s Children Foundation.
“I’m also very involved in Camp Riley,” Manier said. “(Martin) responded so well to the introduction to scuba diving. And she is a tremendous role model for other campers.”
Friday was spent reviewing basic skills at the A-1 Scuba Travel and Aquatics Center.
That evening the entourage went to the Unser Racing Indoor Karting Center.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., gave Martin a few quick lessons on how to operate a specially equipped hand-controlled kart.
“I had never driven before — at all,” Martin said. “I spun out multiple times and crashed. I wasn’t going to do that again.”
But she did. And this time there were no spinouts or crashes.
“The first time she raced it was pretty harrowing for her,” Manier said. “She may be a very sweet girl, but she is also very determined. I am so proud of her, so impressed.”
Taking a dive
Saturday, however, was the big day for Martin and Wallace.
“We dove in two different tanks,” Martin said. “First, we just needed to prove we could dive in salt water with marine life all around. The instructors had to know we could use all the hand signals.”
Then the two were ushered off to a 15-foot tank brimming with sea creatures large and small, as well as hundreds of people peering in from outside the glass.
“It’s pretty crazy to breathe under water. It just doesn’t seem natural at first,” Martin said. “When you are used to it, it’s kind of quiet. You just hear yourself breathing. It’s very relaxing.”
The rule was, Martin said, you couldn’t reach out and touch the fish, but if they happen to swim by and touch you that was fine.
Martin came face to face with sharks, large groupers, sting rays and a few very friendly sea turtles.
“I didn’t get too close to the eels,” Martin said. “They were pretty creepy looking.”
The dive lasted one hour, but Martin and Wallace could have stayed longer.
“Watching them was amazing and inspiring,” Manier said. “She handled it so gracefully and beautifully. She dived like she did it every day.”
Manier also called the whole experience emotional.
“They both did so well,” Manier said. “There were a lot of people watching that weekend and waving to them. They had no idea that when the dive was over, these two divers had to be lifted up and put in wheelchairs.”
From the time she got there until the moment the group left, Manier said Martin was all smiles.
“The last night we were there she told me she didn’t want to go to sleep because she knew when she woke up, she would have to leave.” Manier said.
Martin’s mom also received her certification. Her brother was allowed to snorkel in the tank and her grandmother video taped the entire experience for her to relive anytime she wants.
“I definitely want to do this again,” Martin said. “I don’t want to get this certification and then do nothing with it.”
The trip also included a tour of The Denver Post newspaper offices. That visit meant a lot to Martin who plans on studying journalism at Grace College next fall.