Five things to know about the Desert Challenge

By Caryn Maconi | May 07, 2014, 10:30 a.m. (ET)
Raymond Martin
Raymond Martin, who won four gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympic  Games and became the first man to win five world titles at a world championship last year, is among the competitors at the Desert Challenge Games.

From May 9-11, Arizona Disabled Sports will host the Desert Challenge Games, an annual event featuring swimming, archery and track & field competition for athletes with a physical disability or visual impairment. The meet will be held in Mesa, Arizona, and will combine the fun of recreational sport with the thrills of elite-level competition as it is an International Paralympic Committee Athletics Grand Prix event.

Here are five things you should know about this year’s Desert Challenge:

The history

The first Desert Challenge Games, then called the “Far West Regional Games,” were held in the mid-1980s when a small group of wheelchair track & field athletes from Tucson gathered for a casual competition. Since then, participation and interest in the event has skyrocketed. This year’s edition will feature more than 280 athletes, guides and coaches of all abilities and ages. The event is a collaboration between Arizona Disabled Sports, Mesa Public Schools and Mesa Parks and Recreation, and it was named an Outstanding Adaptive Program by the Arizona Parks & Recreation Association in 2013. U.S. Paralympics and the IPC are also involved in the event.

The Desert Challenge also has a rich history of hosting high-level competition. In 1997, 2004 and 2012, it served as the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Junior National Championships. Prior to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, it was host to the U.S. Paralympic Trials – Track & Field. In 2014, for the second straight year, the Desert Challenge will act as part of the IPC Athletics Grand Prix series.  

The host

Arizona Disabled Sports was founded in 1990 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. This thriving Paralympic Sport Club offers year-round athletic opportunities in archery, cycling, kayaking, soccer, track & field, swimming and more. A branch of Disabled Sports USA and Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA, Arizona Disabled Sports serves approximately 1,200 athletes through regular programming, clinics and special events.

“It’s still kind of a secret here in Mesa,” said Lane Gram, who is serving her 10th year as the club’s executive director. “We’re a small but growing nonprofit organization, and it’s just been fun to see the program grow and be a part of it.”

Arizona Disabled Sports is also a Paralympic Sport Club recognized by U.S. Paralympics.

The marquee event

Shirley Reilly, who won the women's marathon gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, will compete in Mesa, Arizona, this week.

The Desert Challenge Games will serve as the only IPC Athletics Grand Prix Series stop on U.S. soil this year. Athletes from all over the world – including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Ghana and South Africa – will gather in Mesa to test their mettle against Team USA.

Set to compete for the United States are 2012 Paralympic champions Raymond Martin and Shirley Reilly and 2012 U.S. Paralympians David Brown, Lex Gillette, Blake Leeper, David Prince and Jerome Singleton, among others. The Desert Challenge will be the fourth of nine stops on the Grand Prix series, which will ultimately conclude with the IPC Athletics Grand Prix Final in Birmingham, Great Britain, in August.

“The Grand Prix makes for more awareness and makes the event more exciting for us to host,” Gram said. “And we have amazing support internationally this year. Anytime we can bring international, well-recognized athletes to our event, we create awareness for Arizona Disabled Sports and for the event itself.”

And while the event is a global affair, it also offers some of the top U.S. athletes a chance to compete against the best in the world while enjoying a hometown advantage. Sixteen-year-old Rachel Kroener of Scottsdale, Arizona, has been competing at Desert Challenge since 2010.

“It’s nice not to have to travel somewhere,” Kroener said. “I get to sleep in my own bed, my family and friends can come watch me compete. It’s super cool that Desert Challenge is the only Grand Prix event in North America and it is in my hometown.”

The opportunities for new athletes

While the Desert Challenge will feature elite-level Grand Prix competition, it will also include recreational and community races for less experienced athletes. Participants of all disabilities, ages 7 through adulthood, are eligible to compete.

“We keep the competition both elite and recreational with beginners and experienced athletes all at the same event,” Gram said. “On the same night on the same track, you’ll see a 7-year-old competing in his first-ever event, and you’ll also see Blake Leeper run the 100m. And I think having younger kids see their mentors and who they want to aspire to become competing on the same track is really fun.”

At the Desert Challenge, new athletes will also have the opportunity to be nationally and internationally classified by the IPC for swimming, track & field and archery. The classification process groups athletes by type and level of disability to ensure an equal playing field in competition. Once classified, athletes can enter sanctioned events and ultimately make their way into the Paralympic pipeline.

The exposure

Gram said one major benefit of hosting the IPC Athletics Grand Prix at the Desert Challenge is the exposure it brings to the Paralympic Movement as a whole. News coverage is greater due to the presence of Paralympians, and greater coverage leads to increased interest from the community as a whole. Furthermore, athletes with disabilities who had not previously known about the Paralympic Games may watch the Desert Challenge and be inspired to get involved themselves.

“For those younger athletes who might not have the ability to travel to competitions, hosting locally has given them the option to be a part of something bigger and special,” Gram said. “It’s right here in their backyard.”

For additional information on the 2014 Desert Challenge Games, including results, visit