The Will and the Way

Andy Janicki ’07 shares the empowerment he finds in nature

With Andy Janicki, it always seems to come back to the water.

When it was time to choose a college, Janicki, who had been a competitive swimmer for years, was courted by several schools with Division I swim teams. Instead, he elected to become a Pointer after speaking with swimming Coach Al Boelk, who “left a major impression after my visit,” he recalls.

The location and beauty of the UWSP campus also probably helped sway Janicki. In Stevens Point, the Milwaukee native could enjoy the many outdoor activities he loved in a relatively familiar environment. When not in the classroom (or the pool), odds were that he could be found backpacking or hiking. He also enjoyed paddling a kayak around the area’s many waterways.

Being out in nature was the best way for him to clear his mind and refresh his spirit. This remained true even after the accident that left him paralyzed during the spring semester of his junior year. After recuperation and rehabilitation, Janicki returned to UWSP and completed his degree. His first post-graduation gig, as an accessibility coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, had him out in the field checking hiking trails and other outdoor sport and recreation sites to determine their accessibility for disabled visitors. But that wasn’t enough. Despite his limited mobility, Janicki knew he needed to find a way back to the solace of nature on a personal level.

At first he attempted a modified version of backpacking. However, tackling hilly paths and trails that wound through woods proved difficult. He found that he had to stick to gravel paths, to give his wheelchair the necessary traction to move forward and avoid careening out of control. Even then, the threat of a popped tire or tipping over loomed large.

Then he hit upon a promising solution—kayaking. Gliding across the water on his own in an adaptive kayak renewed his sense of independence. In relatively short order, paddling became not only a type of salvation for Janicki, but also an inspiration. Working with the company that produced his adaptive paddling gear, he used his position as an accessibility coordinator to have specially outfitted kayaks placed in Wisconsin state parks and made them available for rental.

From there, he began offering to guide those with disabilities on daylong kayaking trips.

These excursions were the genesis of Wheels to Water. Founded in 2015, the nonprofit is based in California, where Janicki now lives. He moved to Los Angeles in order to take a job as an Americans With Disabilities Act compliance analyst with the civil rights department of the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency.

“As a person with a disability myself, I have an intimate understanding of the impact that getting out of your wheelchair and into a kayak can have on one’s well-being,” says Janicki. “The tagline of Wheels to Water is, ‘Leave your disability on the shore.’ This truly encompasses what the organization is all about, immersing people in an environment free of the barriers that everyday life presents.”

Wheels to Water’s clientele includes people with a variety of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury. Military veterans and amputees also take advantage of the company’s offerings. Janicki began building his client base by speaking at adaptive recreation events and joining forces with disability advocacy groups.

“Once trips got started, however, things spread quickly through word-of-mouth from participants and social media,” he says.

Janicki recently moved from Los Angeles to the Central Coast region of California. “This area is very undeveloped,” he says of his new base of operations, “and contains an abundance of natural beauty, particularly Morro Bay, which is a phenomenal kayaking location. The bay also contains many sheltered areas perfect for Wheels to Water trips.”

Eventually, Janicki would like to flesh out the company’s menu of adaptive recreation services, adding sports such as paddle boarding, scuba diving, and sailing.

“My dream is to establish a water-based adaptive recreation center with shoreline access,” he says. “I’ve got big ideas. I just need the money.”

Before devoting all his time and resources to Wheels to Water, Janicki had worked for three years as a peer mentor and life coach for patients with recent spinal cord injuries at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center –one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the country. He believes that his desire to empower others is an offshoot of his experiences at UWSP. In addition to being a student government representative, he was active in a number of groups that were, as he puts it, “focused on enhancing student life.” He points with pride to starting the Disability Advisory Council, which is still in operation at the university today.

“All of this work strengthened my philanthropic nature,” says Janicki, “and gave me the skills necessary to enact real, positive change in the world.

“UWSP seems to attract and mold some of the best people I’ve ever met, and then spit them out into the world to do amazing things. I’m proud to be a part of that crowd.”