In Tacoma, Wash., athletic opportunities abound for disabled service members and civilians alike thanks to Metro Parks Tacoma's Paralympic program.
Metro Parks Tacoma oversees all parks and recreation services in Tacoma, always aiming to be inclusive of participants with varied needs and abilities. It wasn’t until 2008, however, that the organization decided to implement an adaptive sports program geared specifically toward athletes with physical disabilities.
With that goal in mind, Metro Parks sent representatives to a Paralympic Leadership Conference run by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, to learn the best practices for providing adaptive athletic opportunities at the local level.
“Our district has always been pretty good at adapting folks’ needs to get them into mainstream programs, but at the end of the day we didn’t really have any specific programs for people with physical disabilities,” said Parker Ayers, Metro Park’s specialized and adaptive recreation coordinator. “[The Paralympic Leadership Conference] was our first introduction to adaptive and Paralympic sports, and we brought that knowledge back to Tacoma.”
Today, Metro Parks operates a thriving Paralympic Sport Club that offers instruction in wheelchair basketball, goalball, archery, swimming, track and field, handcycling, kayaking, boccia and more. The program is operated by a small paid staff from the park district and relies heavily on support from the Greater Metro Parks Foundation and its all-volunteer board of directors.
Metro Parks is located less than 15 miles from Joint Base Lewis McChord, a military installation that houses both veteran and active-duty service members. The base’s Warrior Transition Battalion Unit, a treatment and rehabilitation center for injured military, is one of the largest in the country.
In addition, Tacoma is home to the Veteran’s Administration Puget Sound Health Care System American Lake Division.
With these abundant military populations nearby, Metro Parks’ primary focus in its early years was to aid in the rehabilitation of injured service members through adaptive sports.
“This specific area within the Pacific Northwest is highly, highly concentrated with veterans because a lot of people end up staying around here after they leave the military,” Ayers said. “These are folks that need to be served, and we very much wanted to be the people that served them.”
The club still works closely with the Warrior Transition Battalion Unit and the VA Hospital, training injured service members year-round to compete at veteran-focused events like the Valor Games and the Warrior Games presented by Deloitte.
Today, though, Metro Parks serves a much broader athlete population that now includes civilians, both children and adults.
Ayers said the relationship between injured service members and civilians at Metro Parks works surprisingly well.
“We have found that athletes within the community can really help out newer athletes that are coming off of these military bases,” Ayers said. “A lot of them have already gotten through their injuries and come full circle, and they’re really able to help with the healing of some of these new guys and gals coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Metro Parks will emphasize its youth programming this year, conducting demonstrations at local elementary schools and recruiting younger athletes in hopes of widening the population it serves.
Siblings and friends of adaptive athletes are encouraged to join in on sports like goalball and wheelchair basketball by putting on a facemask or strapping into a chair.
“We allow able-bodied people to come play adaptive sports with athletes who have disabilities, because otherwise people couldn’t play basketball with their brother or play goalball with their best friend,” Ayers said. “We call it ‘reverse inclusion,’ but it’s really just inclusion.”
As a Paralympic Sport Club, Metro Parks strives not only to introduce people with disabilities to adaptive sports, but also to bring those that are more competitive into the Paralympic pipeline in hopes of representing Team USA at a Paralympic Games.
The Tacoma Titans, Metro Parks’ wheelchair basketball team, is split into a developmental and a competitive squad. The competitive squad is recognized by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and competes on the national level.
In addition, because Tacoma is so close to British Columbia, higher-level athletes have the unique opportunity to experience international competition at local events. At the Northwest Presidential Cup that occurs annually on President’s Day weekend, athletes compete in a wheelchair basketball tournament that includes Canadian teams. At the South Sound Throwdown in mid-October, goalball athletes compete in a tournament that also includes Canadian competition.
As the Paralympic Movement gains more attention in the United States, Ayers said, Metro Parks is seeing additional growth and recognition as well.
“I would say the biggest thing is that people know what you’re talking about,” Ayers said. “Whether you’re going up to a potential participant, or in terms of grants and funding, people know what it is. U.S. Paralympics is becoming more of a household name.”