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.
You are not alone.
In 2009, Lisa Followay started the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio with that thought on her mind. “When people with physical disabilities make up only 10-percent of the population, it is easy for someone to feel like they’re the only one in the world who has a disability but they’re not,” Followay said.
More than 21 million Americans have a physical disability, including the thousands of military personnel who recently sustained serious injuries during active duty service. For those who live in the state of Ohio, the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio, also known as Paralympic Sport Club Ohio, is there to serve them.
“When you’re with us, you don’t have to explain yourself,” Followay said. “You just have to come and participate. This helps people with physical disabilities, whether is it someone born with a congenital disability, or someone who developed their disability later in life, become comfortable with who they are. It helps them physically and socially.”
Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio currently offers nine sports: archery, handcycling, power wheelchair soccer, sled hockey, swimming, track and field, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair softball and sailing, which is the newest addition.
Wheelchair track racing is the most popular discipline offered.
“I think the increase in participants has to do with the recent inclusion of wheelchair track events in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Track and Field State Championships,” Followay said. “Kids were given the opportunity to compete alongside their peers for the first time.”
Followay’s son Casey, born with spina bifida, won the 400 and 800 meter races.
“As a parent, it was exciting because my son had a chance to win a state title for himself and for his school,” Followay said. “It was very rewarding to see his efforts were paying off. He was on a team representing his school, competing. His teammates saw what he was capable of and they really respected him once they were able to see what wheelchair racing really is.”
Followay also felt excitement as a fan.
“People in the crowd were picking out winners at the start line just like they were for other races,” she said. “They were cheering as the athletes were crossing the finish line. They got into it. I got into it. Everyone in the stadium was into the events. They saw the competitiveness. They saw the athleticism. It was incredible. The crowd was very accepting. It wasn’t pity clapping for the athletes, it was real excitement.”
Followay campaigned for the opportunity for several years.
“We thought that maybe by Casey’s senior year, he’d have the chance to compete at this level, but it came when he was a sophomore,” Followay said. “It is incredible for him and for all high school students with physical disabilities.”
Prior to the inclusion of wheelchair track and field in the event, Casey was the first wheelchair athlete to be included on a high school track and field team in the state of Ohio.
She hopes to see more track and field events added to the state championship in the future as well as inclusion of physically disabled athletes in additional sports. “There is always a need for more opportunity for people with physical disabilities to become active,” Followay said.
Until additional activities arise, Followay and her staff at Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio are busy working on their own programming and the execution of events including Casey’s Challenge, which is 10k, 5 and 1k walk/run event, and the ExCEL Summit, both of which were held earlier this summer.
“The ExCEL Summit brings athletes across the state to Wooster for multiple sports – track, swimming, wheelchair rugby and sled hockey,” Followay said. “Our athletes receive a lot of experience in those sports but we take it further than just training.”
The 30 participating athletes also receive nutrition tips as well as strength and conditioning instruction.
“We Skyped with an athletic trainer to talk about things athletes can do away from their sport,” she said. “The trainer gave them advice on things they can do to make sure they’re prepared when they’re competing. If you’ve got really good training and good practices in areas like nutrition, the trainer told them, you have an advantage on all of your competitors who just get better by doing the sport.”
Bryan Kirkland, who helped the U.S. to a Paralympic Games gold medal in wheelchair rugby, also came to the ExCEL Summit to inspire athletes.
Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio also hosts Paralympic Experiences, which are one-day opportunities for people to try out adaptive sports. Experiences were held in Akron in March and Cleveland in June with Columbus scheduled for September.
While funding for the Paralympic Experiences is provided by the United States Olympic Committee, most of the organization’s other initiatives are funded by private grants. “We do a lot of granting writing here,” Followay said.
For Followay, the only full-time employee, and her two part-time employees, running a program with a statewide reach is difficult but the hardest part is seeing people with physical disabilities not able to participate in a sports program close to their home.
“One of our goals is to make sure there is an opportunity for every physically disabled person in Ohio within an hour of where they live,” she said. “We still have a long way to go but we know we can be successful. People want opportunities in the area. We find a way to offer it.”
Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio also hopes to have a program in every sport contested in the Paralympic and Paralympic Winter Games. It is a lofty goal for the small non-profit but one Followay strongly believes in.
“One sport is not right for everyone,” she said. “People with physical disabilities should have choices.”
And Followay wants to make sure that when they do have choices, financial reasons are not the motivating factor for one sport or the other.
“As a parent, I know Casey doesn’t care about how much it costs to get a track chair. He just wants to race,” she said. “I know he doesn’t care about the cost of ice time. He just wants to play.”
Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio’s equipment loaning program has put more than 100 pieces of equipment – everything from racing chairs to sled hockey pads – into the community.
"We want to take the financial burden out of adaptive sports,” she said. “We want everyone to have local opportunities and the equipment that they need to take advantage of those opportunities."
It is a lofty goal but an important one.
“What we do makes a difference in the lives of people with physical disabilities.”