Megan Blunk plays at the 2019 Angel City Games Celebrity Wheelchair Basketball Game on June 22, 2019 in Los Angeles.
When the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 open Aug. 23 in Peru, more than 250 athletes will don the red, white and blue of Team USA.
For many of them, though, another set of colors helped them get there.
Of the 257 U.S. athletes who will be competing in Lima, 96 have experience participating in a sport at the collegiate level, with 50 of them having competed on a varsity team. Those who did not play varsity were involved in collegiate athletics at a rec sports, club or educational level.
The Parapan American Games run through Sept. 1 and feature athletes from the Americas competing in 17 sports.
With some athletes having attended more than one college, a total of 79 institutions are represented on Team USA, ranging from some of the major land-grant universities that typically dominate collegiate sports to online school DeVry University, which has a partnership with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee to help athletes obtain a degree on a flexible schedule.
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No school will be better represented in Lima than the University of Illinois, which is sending 11 athletes in wheelchair basketball and track and field. Among them is 2016 Paralympic wheelchair basketball gold medalist Megan Blunk.
Paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle crash just before her high school graduation, she learned of wheelchair basketball and within a few years earned a scholarship to Illinois. In addition to picking up undergrad (2014) and graduate (2017) degrees in psychology in Champaign-Urbana, she also excelled on the court and earned on a spot on the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team that won a gold medal.
The University of Texas at Arlington ranks second on the list with 10 representatives, followed by the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, with six.
The Arlington contingent is mostly made up of wheelchair basketball players, though it also includes two wheelchair rugby players as well as two-time track and field Paralympian Tobi Fawehinmi. He graduated in 2017, the same year he won a world title in the triple jump.
Since beginning its men’s wheelchair basketball team as a rec sport in 1976, UTA began intercollegiate play has won eight national championships. The women’s team, which began in 2013, won its first national title in 2016.
All of Wisconsin – Whitewater’s participants are also wheelchair basketball players. That school has claimed 19 national titles in wheelchair athletics.
Among the current or former collegiate athletes, most are competing in track and field (25) or wheelchair basketball (23), followed by swimming (10). In total, athletes from 14 sports have some collegiate background.
While most of the athletes represented are former collegians, 26 are still enrolled as undergraduates, while Illinois wheelchair basketball player Kaitlyn Eaton is the lone graduate student.
Collegiate athletes have always been a major contributor to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic success, and that trend continues. At the recent Pan American Games, which wrapped up earlier this month in Lima, more than 60 percent of U.S. participants were current or former collegiate athletes and over 250 of those athletes earned medals. Three years earlier, nearly 80 percent of the U.S. Olympic Team had the same distinction.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.