On track for courage: USF’s Freiburger overcomes to help others

September 1, 2016

USF Alum Brett Freiburger working with children

Fifteen years ago, Brett Freiburger’s life changed forever when a hunting accident cost him part of his leg. Today, as a physical therapy assistant (PTA), he’s changing others’ lives through his own journey to overcome and excel.

While a high school senior, the Markle, Indiana resident and soccer athlete had his lower left leg amputated. Soon, his interest in a physical therapy career became a passion. “Then I was really driven to become a physical therapy assistant,” the 2008 USF PTA graduate said. “I hoped to motivate people through my experience.”

Before that, however, he struggled to return to athletics. “After my amputation, I tried to find out how to play soccer as a disabled person. I was told to look into track,” he said.

With runners’ prostheses expensive and athletes’ sponsorships hard to attain, he faced some tough off-the-track hurdles to become a track and field athlete. Eventually, he succeeded. “I connected with the right foundation and met some gold medal Paralympians. They said my physique was good for track. I started running at age 22 or so.”

Invited to compete in Chula Vista, California, he worked with an Olympics trainer. “We met at San Diego State, and I didn’t have a running foot yet. Coach said I was good enough, so I got a sponsorship through Ossur, a global leader in orthopedics, headquartered in California. That got my prosthetist the part needed for a running foot.”

With his new running foot and a volunteer coach, Freiburger began finishing sixth and seventh place in national track meets. “I competed in Georgia and Arizona in 2008, and my time was good enough in 2009 to compete in Manchester, England in the 400 meters for the U.S., getting sixth place,” he said. That same year, he competed against famous double amputee Oscar Pistorius one year after his Olympics run.

When Freiburger returned to Indiana, he became a PTA with Theracare. In 2013 he married Adrienne Donze, a 2006 USF PTA grad.

In December, Turnstone—Fort Wayne’s national leader in therapy, sports and recreation programs for people with disabilities—asked him to create a track and field program that would become a Paralympics training facility. Turnstone had built a new field house, and Freiburger met with officials to discuss details, including specialized equipment.

“There are many types of disabled athletes—lower and upper amputees, visually impaired and wheelchair-bound, who need things like racing chairs, throwing chairs, equipment to replace hurdles and so forth,” he said.

He volunteers for the program. “The track and field program is recreational now. The wheelchair basketball kids are coming out,” he said. “I’ve been working with two kids since September who are competing, and both are going to Junior Nationals in three weeks, one qualifying in three events and one in four.

“The first meet in May was very touching, knowing how hard we’d worked. They had not done this before. One is 11 and the other is 11 in December. I got them interested early. I hope by getting these two successful, others will come out. They can become professional athletes, and Oscar Pistorius’ success opened up new opportunities for sponsorships.”

The track club begins In January, and could include wheelchair racing and throwing events. “For me, it was hard to find resources and coaches who would volunteer to help, and that’s why I do it. As Catholics, my parents volunteered in many ways. They showed me these values and I saw them at USF, too. The quality of the PTA program and the values led me to choose USF,” he said.

He works with congenitally disabled athletes ages 9-13. “Since I have a disability, it’s easier to coach and motivate them. They are intrigued by my experience and would love to succeed as I have.”

Freiburger inspires people on the job, too. “I’m always in scrubs, so my patients don’t know I’m an amputee. I can tell the residents and other people there for therapy I know how tough it is, and they can do it.”