When the U.S. Paralympic Team parades into the Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro next year, it will have strong roots extending all the way back to Alabama.
In fact, the links to U.S. Paralympians and the Lakeshore Foundation just outside Birmingham will be almost too numerous to count.
It’s been that way for a long time.
As a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site since 2003, the Lakeshore Foundation is the home of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team and is a regular training site for wheelchair basketball, goalball, swimming, track and field and even some winter sports athletes. Paralympic and Olympic athletes come through the facility on a regular basis for training camps and tune-ups.
“I think the last number I saw, on an annual basis, probably 150 members of various U.S. teams are coming through Lakeshore as part of their training,” said Jeff Underwood, the president of the Lakeshore Foundation.
Plus, when it comes to a Paralympic medals tally, Lakeshore athletes have won about 50 medals, Underwood said.
|Goalball athlete Jen Armbruster competes at Lakeshore Foundation.
Swimmer Aimee Bruder, for instance, is on the staff at Lakeshore and is a six-time Paralympian and five-time medalist; Jen Armbruster — captain of the U.S. goalball team in London that for years has had training camps at Lakeshore — is a six-time Paralympian who has helped her team win gold, silver and bronze medals; and Bob Lujano, a longtime standout on the wheelchair rugby team that won a world championship in 2002 and a bronze medal at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, also works on site at the Lakeshore Foundation.
Armbruster, who plans to be part of the U.S. team at Rio, said the Lakeshore Foundation offers an atmosphere and training facilities tailored specifically toward Paralympic athletes — and they love it.
“There are banners hanging up in the gym that have wheelchair basketball and rugby and goalball from ’08 and our success there (when the U.S. won gold in Beijing),” said Armbruster, who lives in Portland, Oregon, but worked for several years at Lakeshore. “It’s kind of a cool environment to see. Not too many places that you’re going to walk in and necessarily see a flag hung up, ‘2008 women’s goalball.’
“And being a veteran athlete on a team, and having worked there, it’s kind of cool, especially for the young athletes, to see that success or see pictures of the goalball players and wheelchair rugby and Paralympics. It’s pretty inspirational for them to walk in and see all the flags of different countries that have been there.”
A Long History
Today, the Lakeshore Foundation sits on about 45 acres in Homewood, Alabama, south of downtown Birmingham. Its facilities — including a large (126,000-square foot) fieldhouse with three hardwood courts and an indoor track, aquatics center, fitness center, shooting range, research lab and dormitories — are on a beautiful campus with wide lawns, trails and trees.
While the Lakeshore Foundation officially became a part of the Paralympic and Olympic movements a dozen years ago, its history is long and its scope of influence is wide.
Originally the site was home to a tuberculosis sanatorium established in the 1920s. By the early 1970s, it had become the Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital. At that time, the hospital’s administrator, Michael Stephens, headed a program focused on improving the lives of disabled patients following surgery or treatment — largely through recreational exercise. Wheelchair basketball teams were formed, followed by opportunities for children and adults to play tennis, swim and compete in track and field.
“We have to applaud the leadership of the hospital 40 years ago for recognizing how important it was that people went home after they were discharged say, from a spinal cord injury, that they needed to be physically active,” Underwood said. “That was probably somewhat of a radical approach at the time.”
It’s been a successful one.
Through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the Lakeshore Foundation became a place where disabled people throughout the Birmingham area could come for exercise rehabilitation and to compete athletically. Its staff and researchers became well known for their expertise.
Then, when the 1996 Paralympic Games were hosted by Atlanta — just a couple of hours away — Underwood said Lakeshore reached out to the United States Olympic Committee to offer its help. That launched a process that eventually led to Lakeshore being named a training site in 2003.
Today, Underwood said Lakeshore serves about 4,000 people per year, mostly through its community programs. Approximately 200 — including some current, past and future Paralympians — compete on its national-caliber sports teams.
In 2013, the USOC presented the Lakeshore Foundation with its Rings of Gold award in recognition for its work to help disabled boys and girls get involved in sports.
In addition, Lakeshore is a destination for injured military veterans who can receive treatment and learn how to take part in recreational activities. The Lima Foxtrot program for injured military puts them up in cabins on the facility, with their families, to take part in camps and fitness programs.
Over the years, the bond between Lakeshore and the Birmingham-area community has been consistently strong, said Underwood. Lakeshore’s profile as a place where disabled people can become more active — plus as a home to Paralympians striving for gold — has grown, he said.
During the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi last year, for instance, about 2,500 people turned out at Lakeshore to take part in an interactive sports demonstration day and viewing party. And recently, good crowds turned out for a wheelchair basketball tournament that included the United States, Australia, Canada and Great Britain.
During a summer Paralympic Games — when many Lakeshore-connected athletes are competing — the facility will host viewing parties and keep the local media informed of their successes, Underwood said.
The benefits, of course, can be many — particularly the exposure to possible future Paralympians, whether at Lakeshore or on TV.
“One of the things we hope is that more people get involved in Paralympic sport because of the broadcasts” in 2016, Underwood said. “I’m convinced there are still 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-year-old kids out there who don’t know about it. Kids with disabilities … turn on the TV and see somebody who looks like them playing sport and representing their country and they’re going to say, ‘Wow, I want to do that. Where can I go?’”
Home Of Wheelchair Rugby
For 13 years, Lujano worked for Lakeshore as a recreation specialist, helping to develop recreation programs for kids, adults, seniors and military veterans. For the past four years, he’s been an information specialist for the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, which is headquartered at Lakeshore.
Along the way, he’s been a highly competitive wheelchair rugby player, and he said the facilities and resources available at Lakeshore make it No. 1 in the world for the sport. He said when he talks to athletes at international competitions, they’ve all heard of Lakeshore.
The facilities are “state of the art,” with plenty of room — including the 200-meter indoor track that U.S. national coaches turned into “the Lakeshore Mile.”
“If you go around eight times, it’s a mile, so typically the coach will have the players push a mile and time them,” said Lujano, noting it’s used as a measuring stick for the players’ fitness.
Lujano said many in the Birmingham community refer to Lakeshore simply as “the training site.”
“It’s very much changed the perception of people with disabilities in our community, to where they’re aware of the need for physical fitness and exercise, and they’re aware of where they can go to watch competitive wheelchair sports,” said Lujano. “And they’re aware that this is a facility that provides opportunities for our veterans.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written to TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.