Paralympic Sport Club spotlight: Metro Area Community Empowerment

By Caryn Maconi | Dec. 06, 2013, 3:30 p.m. (ET)
Metro Area Community Empowerment offers youth wheelchair basketball as one of its programs
Metro Area Community Empowerment offers youth wheelchair basketball among other programs. 

Antonio Wright isn't often bored.

As a football coach, ordained minister, certified personal trainer, teacher and motivational speaker, the Mississippi native doesn’t have much time to waste.

Still, "bored" was how Wright described himself between the time he had to retire for health reasons from 14 years of football coaching until the time he found his next project. Wright had been an able-bodied football star in high school and college before a car crash damaged his spinal cord. He spent most of his coaching career in a wheelchair, but giving up sports altogether was never an option.

Wright was done coaching football in 2011, but he wasn’t done making a difference. It didn’t take long for him to choose his next endeavor: creating a nonprofit geared toward sports and recreation for people with disabilities.

“I was out of my mind for two weeks,” Wright said. “And I thought, ‘If I’m bored, somebody else in a wheelchair is definitely bored.’”

Within six months, Wright’s dream had become a reality. Metro Area Community Empowerment had received its first grant, and within a year, it was named as a Paralympic Sport Club by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee.

Now MACE, based in Tougaloo, Miss., is in its third year of operation. It has grown from a club serving three individuals with four sports chairs to one serving more than 20 athletes per sport in wheelchair basketball, tennis, softball and other recreational activities.

“It just feels good knowing that other people in wheelchairs and with various disabilities can come together and actually have sports of their own,” said Tremaine Nathan, the coach of MACE’s wheelchair basketball team.

Wright’s motto is, “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” With that foundation in mind, MACE’s mission is to build resilience, determination and confidence in each athlete who comes through the program.

As the only adaptive sport club in the Jackson, Miss., region, MACE strives to reach beyond the metro area to more rural locations where people with disabilities may not have access to basic resources.

With an all-volunteer staff and completely free programming, MACE breaks down the barriers that may otherwise prevent individuals in wheelchairs from having an active lifestyle.

“We reach as far south as the coast and as far north as the Delta,” Wright said. “We make sure that with the clinics we put on, we take care of gas, everything – we just want to give people the opportunity.”

Robbie Sullivan, MACE’s president and CFO, said providing an outlet for people in wheelchairs to compete and socialize makes a crucial difference in the post-injury recovery process.

“It really goes past sports,” Sullivan said. “You socialize with people, get them back out of their shells after they get hurt and back into sports and meeting other people in their area. It’s kind of like the best therapy for people, especially with new injuries.” 

While MACE’s initial goal is to introduce wheelchair users to adaptive sports, the competitive opportunities the club offers extend to the elite level. The Rollin’ Tigers, MACE’s wheelchair basketball team, has a traveling squad that competes in major tournaments throughout the country. Wheelchair fencer Ryan Estep, a Florence, Miss., native who represented Team USA at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, has also partaken in MACE’s programming.

Wright’s mission is about more than just sports, though. MACE collaborates with local high schools, universities and hospitals to arrange advocacy clinics, awareness programs and motivational speaking events for people with and without disabilities.

Nathan said one of the club’s challenges is to confront and change stereotypes about the disabled community.

“We focus on inclusion, spreading the word and shedding light on the perception that people have about individuals with disabilities,” Nathan said. “We’re just trying to change that and get everyone to see people-first, to look at the person for who they are and not for their disability.”

The Rollin’ Tigers will even challenge local high schoolers to wheelchair basketball tournaments, giving the students a 50-point head start as a platform for an epic comeback.

“It’s a way to inspire young people and give them a different way to look at life,” Wright said.

And for Wright, the mission is a personal one.

“I was paralyzed in 1997, and I was a college football player before I got hurt. One thing I realized was that I was never the best athlete, but I was the hardest-working athlete,” Wright said. “Whenever I competed, it let me know if I was getting better or if I needed to keep working hard. I hated losing, but competing gave me drive. It gave me a sense of, I don’t know, direction.

“And so I felt like if you give a person an opportunity to compete, you can give them a path, a platform to build the rest of their life on.”