Within 24 hours after he was born as a breech baby with spina bifida Myelomeningocele, Kevin Hughes underwent two surgeries and his parents were told he'd probably live in an institution.
That was pretty much the last time anyone tried putting limitations on Hughes, now 31 and Turnstone's sports and recreation coordinator. Though he always uses but has not been confined by a wheelchair, Hughes' parents let him explore and figure things out, raising him just like any other kid, spoiling but not babying him.
Now, there's no athletic endeavor he won't try, and he's played dozens of sports including hockey, soccer, basketball, archery, rappelling, fishing and goalball. If I'm asking these guys to get a bloody nose when they make a mistake, he'll say, I should have felt that as well. He's even tried snow skiing.
"I love the skiing trip because anybody can do it no matter what your mobility is," he said. "Even if you physically don't have the strength to control yourself, they'll still have two volunteers tethered to you from behind. And you still have that same feel of completely... even if you are tethered, you feel like you could die. That's awesome. It's like rollercoaster. Realistically, everything is going to be fine, but in the pure moment of things, you think, `I might hit that tree.' I love those experiences because those are something that somebody will remember."
Asked for his bucket list, Hughes says skydiving and water skiing. Oh, he'll do them sometime, and then keep looking for new things to add to the list. When he speaks at schools, children try to stump him, but he says he can to anything if he tries hard enough.
"There's nothing I haven't tried," Hughes said. "I can't sell something unless I know it. I can't realistically talk to somebody straight-forward and say, `You have to try this!' if I haven't tried it myself."
And that's the entire point of his life. More than competing and trying new sports, Hughes loves helping those with physical problems to find something new to love, to challenge them or maybe even help bring them back to life if they have suffered a horrific injury. When he first started, he was looking for sled hockey teammates, tired of driving to Chicago every two weeks to play. Then, at age 18, he started coaching Turnstone's junior basketball team.
"He's in his element when he's out there on the floor," said Turnstone Director of Outreach Tina Acosta. "I love to go by the gym and just watch and listen to him interacting with the kids. He's just a natural. He motivates and encourages them. Just the fact that he's in a wheelchair and they are in a wheelchair, when he says you can do this, they really believe him."
Now Hughes has helped dozens and maybe even hundreds of athletes with physical challenges find a new niche.
"He's good about finding what you need," said former Bishop Luers basketball star Shelby Gruss who was paralyzed from the waist down in 2012 while snowboarding. "He doesn't push basketball on you. He works to find something that will help you, but he's never 'You have to do this.' He never gives up on trying to help you out.
"I consider him my friend. If I have any questions about anything, I'll go to him first. I think the big thing is he's in it, too, kind of. You feel comfortable talking to him. He knows what it was like. He gets it."
Though he's been tubing, the one sport he doesn't care for is water skiing because he'd be dependent upon the person driving the boat for half the activity.
Since he started coaching as a Northrop High School senior, Hughes has yearned to help others find their freedom through athletics. He can't wait for the next person to come through Turnstone's doors whose parents are wary and protective, or who has been through a life-changing accident. He may not get them convinced during that first visit, but you'd be surprised, he said, how often they come back eventually, ready to give him a chance to show them the possibilities.
"I feel like any individual who is in this area who has a similar background as me who doesn't get involved and try different activities... it's just a shame," he said. "They can find their niche in something. It doesn't have to be competitive, it can be very leisurely and help in so many ways, whether it's in networking for their own personal desires, networking with new people or to do something with family."
The real satisfaction for him is finding someone who doesn't think they can do anything and convincing them to try. He helps them past their vulnerable stage, and then when they embrace something... there's no stopping them.
"I get that people who haven't seen it don't believe it," he said. "That's our biggest hurdle even when we have somebody who wants to get involved. They don't have any reference points because they have never seen it before. It's not even casually on TV. For somebody who has no connection to somebody with a physical disability or whatever disability, they have no sense of awareness of this environment. If you come into it not knowing a whole lot, you think the worst because you have no other influences."
Maybe that makes the job a little more of a challenge, but how tough can that be when his whole life has been about challenges? He'll say everybody's life is about challenges.
"It's obvious one of the reasons I do this is because I know there's great benefit," he said. "To some degree, I know it very well. If I felt like I wasn't doing this well, I'd be doing something else. I feel like I have a viewpoint that's a little different from a lot of people, and I would be wasteful if I didn't use it.
"My ego thinks I'm pretty good at it. I kind of own that, too. I own my disability and I own what my experiences are and the value of them. It's crazy in a way, but I've been very blessed."
For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.
Sports Kevin Hughes has competed in:
Tournaments/events: Half-marathons - pushing, soccer, tennis, table tennis, hockey and basketball.
Recreational programs: Boccia, yoga, fencing, Judo, Karate, Taekwondo, indoor rock climbing, curling, cyclone, air gun/rifle, archery, golf, snow skiing, kayaking, indoor and outdoor rowing, goalball, rugby, track and field, football, softball, bowling, volleyball, dance, swimming, fishing, horseback riding and hiking.
9th Annual Bob Chase Frostbite Open
Sled hockey tournament
Parkview Ice House
Starts 9 a.m. Saturday, 12:20 p.m. opening ceremonies
Turnstone games: 1 and 3:40 p.m. Saturday, 7:10 and10:20 a.m. Sunday.