Biweekly, USParalympics.org will spotlight one of the Paralympic Sport Clubs making a difference in the Paralympic Movement. Created in 2007 by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, the community based Paralympic Sport Club program involves youth and adults with physical and visual disabilities in physical activity and sports in their community, regardless of skill level. The program currently has 183 active Paralympic Sport Clubs in 46 states and Washington, D.C. To find Paralympic Sport Clubs and other adaptive, disabled and Paralympic sport opportunities in your community, visit the Paralympic Resource Network.
Arizona Disabled Sports, a Paralympic Sport Club in Mesa, Ariz., offers a variety of sport programs including archery.
Collaboration between public schools’ adaptive physical education programs and a city’s park and recreation adaptive sports program is all it took for Arizona Disabled Sports, Paralympic Sport Club Mesa, to take flight, serving both youth and adults with disabilities in the Phoenix area.
In 1989, two Mesa, Ariz., programs fused in order to obtain proper adaptive equipment for disabled youth and adult sport programs. Arizona Disabled Sports (AzDS) has been an unstoppable force nearly 25 years.
Known as Mesa Association of Sports for Disabled until 2007, AzDs has experienced rapid momentum since hiring its first full-time employees in 2003. It was previously operating as a volunteer non-profit organization.
“Since then we have been able to give AzDS the attention it needed and focus on the programs’ development,” said Executive Director Lane Gram.
Open to children (over 6 years old) and adults with any physical disability or visual impairment, AzDS offers programs with archery, bowling, cycling, kayaking, power soccer, swimming, wheelchair basketball and track and field.
Gram explained, with their growing participant numbers, the club is beginning to focus on developing the current programs and separating athletes into smaller groups that will enable them have a positive experience.
“Creating time frames for the different categories will make more of a one-on-one atmosphere for athletes,” said Gram. “We’ll be able to separate age groups as well as level of experience so everyone is comfortable.”
In Mesa, cycling, archery and track programs are among those thriving.
Gram explained their adaptive cycling program is in high request because cycling is primarily individual. Athletes can come in as a group, learn about bike care and how to train, but can return home and recreationally cycle with family and friends.
AzDS aims to make adaptive sports not only beneficial but personally enjoyable too.
“Archery has grown a lot within our youth programs,” Gram said. “Their track and field coaches will encourage them to try something new after practice, so they can get their exercise in and then go have fun with archery. The Hunger Games series has made archery ‘cool’ so we have seen a lot more kids join in.”
With the concentration skills instilled by military training, and a natural ability to shoot, veterans with disabilities are also among those who find archery to be of interest.
Exposure from the London 2012 Paralympic Games has also produced a spike in interest for track events, which is sure to continue after the upcoming Desert Challenge. The annual multi-sport competition is a part of the inaugural International Paralympic Committee Athletics Grand Prix circuit.
The 2013 Desert Challenge, May 17-19, will include swimming, archery, track and field aas well as national and international classification events.
The International Paralympic Committee has sanctioned AzDS events in the past. Partnering the IPC, the global governing body for Paralympic sport, and U.S. Paralympics to bring international athletes to Mesa adds prestige to the Desert Challenge.
Gram said the event is expected to have 130 athletes.
At the event, track and field athletes will have the opportunity to be internationally classified, presenting an opportunity for AzDS to expand its involvement with the Paralympic Movement worldwide. The club is already well respected throughout the state and even the nation.
“AzDS offers a close-knit community for participants as well as a strong connection with other organizations,” said Gram. “We get referrals from physical therapists, doctors and hospitals, and collaborating with them really helps spread awareness.”
Rio Salado Rowing Club in Phoenix is the only other Paralympic Sport Club in Arizona.
“We are also one of the only recognized Paralympic Sport Clubs in Arizona, so some of our athletes travel from all over the state just to come and train,” Lane said.
AzDS stands to be one of the nation’s fastest growing Paralympic Sports Clubs, but the organization is not all about sport programs.
Gram revealed their summer plans of developing an athlete ambassador program as well as a mentor program. Through the programs, AzDS athletes of all levels will participate in events throughout the community, hoping to encourage disabled individuals to participate in sports programming. New AzDS athletes can then interact with already successful athletes.
“The summers are very hot here, so when there isn't much training, we want our ambassadors to essentially be spokespeople for the club and for their sport,” explained Gram.
Along with the development of an athlete ambassador program, AzDS has long-term goals of branching out to reach more areas in Arizona communities as well as nationally. Gram said they would like to create satellite programs so athletes would not have to travel far to train or participate.
Short-term goals for AzDS are to simply continue their influence of adaptive sports in Arizona and persistently generate awareness for adaptive sports.
“We serve all ages and all abilities,” said Gram. “We work to perfect our programs and offer the very best opportunities for our participants because they are the most important reason why we are here.”