Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: Penn State Ability Athletics

By Caryn Maconi | April 18, 2014, 4:29 p.m. (ET)
Maggie Redden, a 2008 U.S. Paralympian in track & field, graduated from Pennsylvania State University and trained with Penn State Ability Athletics.

Army veteran and five-time U.S. Paralympics track & field national champion Kortney Clemons. Two-time Parapan American Games track & field silver medalist and 2008 U.S. Paralympian Maggie Redden. International Paralympic Committee Powerlifting World Championships silver medalist Rohan Murphy.

What do these talented athletes have in common?

They all graduated from Pennsylvania State University. More specifically, they all began their Paralympic careers through Penn State Ability Athletics.

The Penn State Ability Athletics program was founded in 1999 in an effort to involve people with physical disabilities in sports and recreation using Penn State University’s facilities and coaches. The initiative was to be focused not just on PSU students, but on the community as a whole.

Today, this Paralympic Sport Club in University Park, Pa., offers training in recreational and competitive sports ranging from track & field to aquatics to weightlifting.

“We have grown from one person to now helping over 100 people on a weekly basis,” said Teri Jordan, head coach and disability recreation director for Ability Athletics. “On a national scope, we have Paralympic wounded warriors and other athletes come in for clinics. I can’t even imagine the number that we have helped.”

Athletes that come through the program do not have to be PSU students, but if they are, they have a rare opportunity to represent their university in Paralympic competition.  

“The ability for Paralympic athletes to compete in excellent facilities and exciting year-round programs sets PSU apart from other Paralympic programs across the country,” Jordan said.

Jordan transitioned to her role as disability recreation director after several years as an assistant coach for the Penn State University women’s track & field team.

Her coaching expertise in both able-bodied and Paralympic sports is extensive, as she also assisted the U.S. Track and Field Team that won 27 medals at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. She has seen the top level of Paralympic sport, and she is committed to helping the athletes at Ability Athletics reach their competitive goals.

Because Ability Athletics is an outreach program of the university, its athletes also have the chance to compete alongside collegiate teams in PSU-hosted track & field meets throughout the year, something Jordan said is one of the program’s strongest assets.

And while track & field is its most popular sport, Ability Athletics aims to be all-inclusive and will make an effort to accommodate any athletic interest.

“We’ve done sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis, sled hockey, many different sports,” Jordan said of the program’s versatility. “If somebody wants to do it, we learn about it and give people the opportunity to participate in it.”

Ability Athletics also works directly with military programs such as the Navy Safe Harbor Foundation to introduce wounded veterans to adaptive sports.

“We’ve gone to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], to the Warrior Games in Colorado, to Hawaii and to various places across the country,” Jordan said. “Different teams at the university have raised funds so that local wounded warriors are able to go out to the Warrior Games tryouts or get the equipment so that they can try out.”

After introducing people to adaptive sports at the grassroots level, Ability Athletics then trains those with competitive potential to represent Team USA at the international and Paralympic level.

Clemons, Redden and Murphy each found their way into the Paralympic pipeline at about the same time, as they all represented Team USA at the 2007 Parapan American Games.

More recently, Penn State graduate Jake Strom represented Team USA at the 2014 IPC Powerlifting World Championships, which ran from April 5-11 in Dubai.

And then there’s Max Rohn, a Navy veteran who was introduced to Ability Athletics through the Navy Safe Harbor-PSU track meet. Rohn’s experience at the meet was so positive that he chose to enroll in Penn State University and has continued to train with Ability Athletics. Rohn made the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team for shot put in the summer of 2013, and he hopes compete for Team USA at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in November 2015.

Whether introducing them to adaptive sports for the first time, helping them stay in shape or training them for the Paralympic Games, the Penn State Ability Athletics program helps athletes with disabilities reach their goals – one step, jump or lift at a time.