Born with knees and feet facing backward, Travis May got his first power-operated wheelchair when he was two. He was born with a congenital neuromuscular disorder called arthrogryposis that affects nearly all of his joints.
About one baby in 3,000 has the incurable condition related to restricted fetal movement. In May’s case, it occurred because he is a twin.
Now 28 and nearly paralyzed, he taps messages on a computer keyboard with a stick clenched between his teeth. He uses the headrest to steer his wheelchair, and aides employ a winch to hoist him in and out of bed.
“It has been this way all of life,” he says.
The disability makes it impossible for him to play sports. He understands them perfectly, however, and uses his voice to bring them alive as a broadcaster – both colour and play-by-play – for the basketball, hockey and volleyball teams at MacEwan University in downtown Edmonton. He’s the longest-serving broadcaster in the university’s history.
The Griffins’ home games are live-streamed as they compete at the U Sports level and in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.
“People text me after games telling me how great he is,” says Kayla Ivicak, a fifth-year MacEwan basketball player. “He is an inspiration.”
During basketball and volleyball games, May and broadcast partner Jordan Gill sit beside the court in the school gym. During hockey, they set up a station beside the glass at the community rink inside Rogers Place.
If he needs to take notes during a broadcast, May asks Gill for help.
“I can’t type with my mouth and talk at the same time,” he says.
Although he has had multiple surgeries, his condition worsened until he was 16. It has since plateaued.
Taught to be independent at an early age, May had chores, as his siblings did, on the family farm in Daysland, a town of 800 people 90 minutes southeast of Edmonton. While his brothers tended to cattle and pigs and gathered barley, canola and wheat, Travis, in his wheelchair, towed a wagon behind him carrying whatever essentials they would need.
“Everyone else had to get up at 6 a.m. and so did I,” May says.
As kids, he and his twin brother Trevor engaged in fierce battles over ball hockey. Travis, who has minimal use of one hand, used a stick jammed between his left leg and the wheelchair to block his brother’s shots.
“We were viciously competitive,” May says. “That part of me never got squashed.”
When he couldn’t play basketball or volleyball in elementary school, May learned to referee both sports. He attended dances and shucked and jived in his chair.
“My understanding of life came in junior high as the rest of my hormones followed me,” he says. “In some ways I feel fortunate because I have dealt with this all my life.
“It is probably easier than for someone who has a sudden injury.”
A carpenter built a wheelchair ramp so he could cross the stage during high school graduation. Friends included him in all activities.
He moved to Edmonton at 17 and enrolled in classes at MacEwan. He initially studied insurance and risk management.
“It is as dreadful as you would think it is,” he says.
He transferred to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, also in Edmonton, and studied digital media. He is pursuing a degree online now because it is difficult for him to take more than two courses at a time.
His older brother Ryan is 6-foot-6 and formerly played basketball at MacEwan. Travis enjoyed watching Ryan’s games, and eventually began doing colour commentary. It was a volunteer position when he began, but he is paid now. He has been the voice of the Griffins for eight years.
On Wednesday night, he called the MacEwan men’s hockey team’s 4-1 victory over the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
If it is not too icy, May drives his wheelchair to MacEwan along sidewalks and bike paths. From his apartment, it is four kilometres each way.
Once, the battery in his chair died, stranding him in the middle of a bridge when it was -20 C. A jogger heard cries for help and rushed to the rescue. The Samaritan pushed him home, mostly uphill, for a kilometre and a half. “I offered to buy him a beer, but he wouldn’t hear of it,” May says.
When the weather is nasty, May drives his wheelchair a few slushy blocks to a bus stop and hitches a ride from there to MacEwan. He arrives an hour before games.
If it is not too cold, May drives his wheelchair home afterward. It takes about 20 minutes. “It is a good way to wind down after work,” he says.
He has earned appreciation from his broadcast partner.
“He might not have played sports, but he studies them well and is very detail-oriented,” Gill says. “He puts in more work than the average guy, and knows 90-per-cent more than most of them.”
Coaches admire his tenacity.
“He is great at his job, and when you put into perspective what he does to get here, it’s pretty impressive,” Katherine Adams, the women’s basketball coach, says.
May’s body has limits, but not his mind. He mulls creating a consultancy on accessibility issues.
“I would love to turn [broadcasting] into something more, but it would have to be a special situation," he says. He lists Bob Cole and Jim Hughson as his favourite broadcasters.
In the meantime, May imagines the phone will ring and an NBA or NHL team will offer him a position.
“It is definitely a dream,” he says. “I haven’t closed the door on that.”