By Jennifer Longdon
Photos by Loren Worthington
It was big news when New Jersey’s Rutgers University entered the NCAA Big Ten Conference last year. A related story in July didn’t receive the same attention. Rutgers announced it was “developing a robust adaptive sports and fitness program for students with disabilities” in response to inquiries by state legislators and the direct advocacy of a local family with an Arizona connection. New Jersey native, Eric Katz, a full-time wheelchair user, came to the University of Arizona to play wheelchair basketball because he lacked choices at home. “My dad basically did all of the work to get Rutgers to have a program. I believe it was long overdue.” When asked why the Rutgers program was so meaningful that his family advocated even after his graduation, Katz replied, “For someone in my shoes… they can finally start to look at staying near home and with friends before and after school. All of the friends I made in school live on the other side of the country. I don’t see them and lost touch with many.” Katz graduated in 2006. He’s now a practicing prosthetist in New Jersey.
Most college sports are organized and regulated by the National College Athletics Association, the NCAA, a non-profit, private membership organization that generated $989 million in total revenue with more than $80 million of that as surplus revenue in 2014. Their website states: “More than 150,000 college athletes receive $2.7 billion in athletics scholarships each year from NCAA member colleges and universities.”
While some of those athletes may also have disabilities that do not impact their athleticism in typical sports, no adaptive sports are covered by the NCAA and none of their sports scholarships are for adaptive sports.
Without funding from the NCAA, how do adaptive sports score at our state universities?
“The University of Arizona’s adaptive athletics program is the largest university program in the United States,” says Adaptive Athletics Director, David Herr-Cardillo. The UA program includes 6 sports and 50-70 student athletes. Last year, UA made 26 scholarship awards for adapted sports athletes. Herr-Cardillo has been building the adaptive athletics program at UA since 1979. The Wildcats program staffs three head coaches and has trained 27 Paralympians. “I tell my athletes there’s not a professional path at this time for adaptive athletics unless you’re an elite wheelchair racer,” says Herr-Cardillo. “We really emphasize being well-rounded and focus on academics. If any of our students’ grades falls too low, we don’t revoke their athletic scholarship; we work with them to get them back where they belong.”
Some of UA’s success in adaptive athletics is the result of generous funding by Tucson businessman, Jim Click. In 1984, an employee in Click’s auto body shop, Richard Nolen, sustained a C6-7 spinal cord injury playing touch football at a company picnic. Click’s support of Nolen included helping him return to a fully-integrated life after rehab at Craig Hospital, which included adaptive sports. Nolen became a successful wheelchair racer with Herr-Cardillo as his coach and earned his MBA. He now serves as the COO of the Jim Click Automotive Team. Herr-Cardillo said, “Through [Richard’s] experience, Jim saw first-hand how athletics is a tool to rehab and reintegration.” Click founded Tucson’s annual Jim Click Run and Roll, an 8K and 3K Fun Run. The Clicks made a $750,000 donation in 2000 to ensure the ongoing success of adaptive athletics at UA, and The Jim and Vicki Click Adaptive Athletic Center was named in their honor.
The Click Center not only serves as the training center of UA athletes in adaptive sports; it is open for community wellness, with many of the adapted team sports comprised of a mix of UA students and local community members.
Wisconsinite Nate Miller says the wheelchair rugby team at UA was “100% a factor in my decision to come to Arizona.” Miller, a C-7 incomplete quadriplegic as a result of a shallow dive, is finishing his bachelor’s degree in architecture. Six years ago, he was recruited by UA head coach Bryan Barten out of his technical college in Wisconsin. “If not for adaptive athletics, I would not have continued my education.” Miller says that the universal accessibility on campus and the adaptive sports programs bring more people with disabilities out to socialize and interact. He spends much of his free time at the Click Center.
“When you’re surrounded by all the people with all these different abilities, you don’t feel singled out.”
Miller plans to stay in Arizona following graduation and already has an offer of employment through his architecture internship. “People with disabilities who participate in organized sports are more likely to take on other endeavors like employment and starting a family.”
“Preparation for life” is one of the benefits of playing competitive sports listed on the NCAA website. “Increasingly, the business world is focusing on creating a team environment with employees. By competing in college sports, student-athletes learn important skills such as leadership, time management and how to work with others toward a common goal.”
Team sports are a “social network you can rely on every day,” says Dr. Jennifer Ruddell, who earned Paralympic Gold in Athens in 2004 and again in Beijing in 2008 as Team USA co-captain. She is the coach of the fledgling wheelchair basketball program at Arizona State University, which operates with a generous grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and support from Sun Devil Fitness Downtown Director, Chad Ellsworth. The ASU team is the only member of the intercollegiate division of the ability360.org/sports in the Western US, with the next closest team in Arlington, Texas. “We’re a co-ed team and we play in the Men’s’ Division,” says Ruddell. “This year, we won’t play any home games. They’ll all be in the Midwest and Northeast.” The program does not yet offer scholarships.
Tara Grant is Assistant Director of ASU’s Disability Resource Center. She is enthusiastic about the newly-formed NWBA team as well as the Adaptive Fencing, Power Soccer and Adaptive Sailing programs available to Sun Devil students. “There are a number of opportunities through student clubs; we have a newly-formed goalball club and many others.” She suggests that students with disabilities looking to get involved in student athletics contact her office or check OrgSync, which lists all of ASU’s more than 1,000 student organizations. “If you don’t find what you’re interested in, it’s very easy to start a new student club.”
Jamie Axlerod, Director at Northern Arizona University’s Disability Resource Center, echoes Grant’s advice. “NAU offers a wide experience to our students of all abilities.” He suggests that students contact the Disability Resource Center to learn more about the adaptive sports available. In October, NAU hosts a seated volleyball tournament. Both UA and ASU will be sending teams.
Students at each of our State universities will find a range of athletic opportunities. Each campus has a Disability Resource Center, which serves as the best portal to find those opportunities. Coaches also attend and recruit at regional games.
But staying in-state isn’t the only, nor always the best, choice. Freshman Rachel Kroener was recruited by universities in Wisconsin and Illinois as well as ASU, but chose University of Texas at Arlington for its Women’s NWBA team. “She accepted with UTA the day before the ASU team was officially formed,” says Kroener’s mother, Kristie. “We toured several schools, but UTA is where Rachel felt she fit in.” Eighteen-year old Kroener will study Exercise Science and Kinesiology; she hopes to become a prosthetist. Kroener was offered a small scholarship when she signed with the UTA team. “It was important that they waived out-of-state tuition. Vocational Rehabilitation will pay in-state tuition, and she earned an academic scholarship as well,” says mom, Kristie Kroener.
Born the middle child and only daughter, Kroener, who lives with Cerebral Palsy, has used a wheelchair for mobility since 7th grade. “I originally wanted her close to home,” says Kristie Kroener. “When we met her coach, we were impressed with the family-oriented feel. He [Coach Doug Garner] helped move Rachel into her accessible apartment, helped fix her wheelchair and hosts Thanksgiving for his athletes who don’t go home for the holiday.” Kroener also holds multiple records in track and field and has Paralympic aspirations in shot put, javelin and discus. UTA is supportive of her Paralympic training.
Most elementary and high schools do not host adaptive team sports which develop skills and foster an understanding of the sport. College may be the first exposure some athletes have to organized team adaptive sports. Some high schools now host individualized adaptive track and field events but not organized teams because it takes only one student to compete against the clock or the record rather than a team of 8 or more to play basketball, rugby or soccer. Organizations like the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center and the Click Center are the magnets for adaptive team sports outside of college life.
With elite performance college athletes like Katz, Nolen, Miller, Ruddell, Kroener and Wagner competing at the highest levels of their given sports, with multiple world records and Paralympic medals between them, one must wonder why the NCAA is so conspicuously absent in adapted collegiate athletics. Surely, somewhere in their nearly $3 billion in annual athletic scholarships and $80 million surplus revenue in this year alone, there is one athlete in adaptive sports worthy of their notice.
In its statement of core values adopted by the NCAA Executive Committee in April 2010, it states: “The Office of Inclusion will provide or enable programming and education, which sustains foundations of a diverse and inclusive culture across dimensions of diversity including, but not limited to age, race, sex, class, national origin, creed, educational background, disability, gender expression, geographical location, income, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation and work experiences.” Yet, not a dime is invested in development and scholarships for adapted sports.
One must wonder why the NCAA is so conspicuously absent in adapted collegiate athletics. Surely, somewhere in their nearly $3 billion in annual athletic scholarships and $80 million surplus revenue in this year alone, there is one athlete in adaptive sports worthy of their notice.
“…you gotta step out of the box, leave your comfort zone and try.”
“I wasn’t a sports kid going up” says Paralympian Jeremy Wagner. During his days as a welder at the Pearl Harbor shipyard he developed an appreciation. “I was a [Department of Defense] contractor at the time. We were encouraged to participate in basketball and volleyball as a way to build a team.” Wagner was also an Army Reserve sergeant at the time.
The 27 year old native of Hawaii sustained an L1 incomplete spinal cord injury in August 2007 due to a motorcycle accident. He now uses a wheelchair fulltime for his mobility. Eighteen months post-injury he was introduced to adaptive canoeing with outrigger canoes. “Sports brings a different level to recovery. You really focus on strength and balance and range of motion while you’re having fun.”
Wagner’s focus on sports has served him well. In Denver for the 2010 National Veteran’s Wheelchair Games, he was recruited to join the US ability360.org/sportsteam. He left Hawaii, stayed in Denver to train for 4 years, and competed in his first Paralympics in Sochi in the Biathlon and Cross-country skiing where he earned a Personal Best. He has aspirations to compete in 2018 Winter Games.
It was the pursuit of Paralympic Gold that brought him to Phoenix with reports that there would be an outrigger rowing classification for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. He came here to train. He was disappointed when the classification did not make the Games. “But by then I’d found the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center. They offer so many activities. I ran into hockey.”
Moving to Phoenix brought Wagner back to team sports where he plays hockey and lacrosse. “Team sports let you see how people work under different conditions.” He’s excited to be part of the very first NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association) team at ASU.
It is team sport that brings the veteran back to school. “To be on the team, you have to be a full-time ASU student. I have a two year degree in exercise and wellness. It’s time to get a four year degree.” Wagner plans to make adaptive sports and wellness his focus. “It’s exciting to have an opportunity to be on the ground level and see the Sun Devil team flourish.”
Wagner sees parallels between adjusting to disability and adaptive sports. “Everything is intimidating at first because you’ve never done it before, but you gotta step out of the box, leave your comfort zone and try.”
Phoenix-based writer, speaker and advocate
Jennifer Longdon is known to drink too much coffee, ask too many questions and then write about it. She has served on numerous Boards and Commissions focused on disability advocacy including the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Public Impact Panel. Jen has a T-4 spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair full time. She’s a regular contributor to LivAbility.