Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association Executive Director Cindy Housner believes that nobody should be sidelined from participation in athletics – or in life – because of a disability.
In fact, “Let no one sit on the sidelines” is the motto lauded by GLASA, a Paralympic Sport Club based in Lake Forest, Ill.
Housner launched GLASA in 1993 after moving to the Chicago region and realizing that the athletic opportunities for people with physical and visual disabilities there were few and far between. Housner has a Bachelor’s degree in physical therapy and adaptive physical education and a master’s in education; she moved to Illinois after several years working with Wheelchair Sports USA (National Wheelchair Athletic Association) in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“When I moved to this geographic area, there were just limited resources, and along with parents and coaches, I saw that there was a real need here,” Housner said. “I saw that it’s more than just sports. Providing sports is life-changing, and I’ve seen lives change dramatically.”
Today, the club serves over 480 athletes per year in 30 different sports. Sports offered include sled hockey, swimming, track and field, archery, goalball, handcycling and many more. Sitting volleyball, a sport contested at the Paralympic Games, was implemented as a new GLASA program for the first time this year.
“As a Paralympic Sport Club, our goal is to identify and provide athletes with more training to help them achieve their goals,” Housner said. “For example, we are partnering with Illinois Swimming to identify more swimmers and potential Paralympians.”
Because GLASA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, its board works tirelessly to create fundraising opportunities through local charity events. This year, GLASA has been named as a charity partner for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, which is set for Saturday, Oct. 12.
With this partnership, able-bodied runners compete in the race and commit to raising a chosen amount of money per mile for GLASA. In addition, runners are partnered with GLASA athletes so that they can meet the individuals they are supporting and better understand the club’s mission.
Diana Helt, GLASA’s grant writer and a competitive paratriathlete, will be pushing Saturday’s marathon using a handcycle. Helt said that pairing able-bodied runners with GLASA athletes helps them see the direct impact of their fundraising in a more meaningful way.
“Some of our runners may not have heard of GLASA beforehand, and the best way we can tell the GLASA story is by getting folks to connect to an individual person,” Helt said. “You know you’re making a difference, but that difference is right here in this seven-year-old kid or this 15-year-old who, for the first time, is able to play wheelchair basketball because he has the funds to buy a basketball chair.”
In addition to able-bodied runners, Team GLASA will be sending three wheelchair racers – two of whom are military veterans – and one visually-impaired runner to compete in the marathon.
It will be the first attempt for Bob Swanson, a member of GLASA’s national-championship-winning sled hockey team, to race the 26.2-mile distance using a handcycle.
But the former football star isn’t competing for hugs. He has goals to finish in less than two hours, qualify for the Boston Marathon, and eventually compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in track and field or paratriathlon.
“I’ve been an athlete all my life. I’m a real competitor,” Swanson, who was injured in a snowmobile accident six years ago, said. “That’s just something that doesn’t go away. That’s who you are, and I’ve realized in life that this is what I need to do.”
Swanson has also helped implement a wheelchair football program through GLASA that will compete with other local adaptive teams for the first time this season.
Swanson said he hopes that by entering events such as Saturday’s race, he will motivate the club’s younger participants to try new sports and become more independent.
“Whether it’s sled hockey, track, whatever, you’ve got the younger ones doing it right there with you,” Swanson said. “I’ve always been somewhat of a role model. I used to coach, but to me this feels different … I just try to get them as independent as possible, doing stuff for themselves – especially the younger ones.”
GLASA’s presence at the marathon, Helt said, represents more than just a fundraising opportunity.
“Of course we definitely want to raise money,” Helt said. “But the other great thing about being a charity partner is raising that community awareness. There are 45,000 people that run the Chicago Marathon. How many of them have never heard of GLASA, have never heard of Paralympic sports, never knew you could even do these things? If there are two or three or four people in that marathon who find out that their brother or sister or friend could benefit from GLASA, that’s what really matters.”
Funds raised from events like the Chicago Marathon help GLASA maintain affordable program fees and offer assistance to athletes with financial need. Nearly 40 percent of the club’s participants receive some form of scholarship. Those that do pay program fees can be assured that their money is being well-spent, as 91 cents of every dollar that GLASA accrues goes directly into its sports programming.
Athletes involved with GLASA can expect even more from their membership than quality athletic opportunities. The club offers a peer mentoring program through Disabled Sports USA, classes on nutrition, health and wellness, and connections to social service agencies.
As one of the larger Paralympic Sport Clubs in the United States, GLASA is also a frequent host of regional and national adaptive sports competitions. The Great Lakes Regional Games and the Adult National Championships are held alongside each other each May at GLASA’s facilities. The club was also home to the National Junior Disability Championships for the first time in 2010, allowing youth who had qualified at the Great Lakes Regional Games and other regional competitions to come together for a pinnacle event.
On Nov. 17, GLASA will host a Paralympic swimming talent identification day as part of the new Gateway to Gold initiative hosted by U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee. Participants will have their times recorded in a database accessible to U.S. Paralympics coaches. Swimmers who are competitive with National Team qualification times may then be invited to participate in clinics or training camps through U.S. Paralympics.
For Swanson and many others, GLASA’s programs have provided a road to recovery – and then some.
“I was trying to live off the dream – I planned my day, my week and my life around football,” Swanson said. “And when that was over I said, ‘What will I do now?’ Honestly, I feel like I’m doing more now than I was doing before.”