Jean Driscoll celebrates winning gold at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.
When Cindy Housner watches the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track and Field in June 2021, some of the athletes’ faces might look familiar.
“We have a number of athletes that we’re hoping will be able to go to Trials,” she said.
As the founder of the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, Housner has had more than a little to do with these athletes’ successes. In fact, in some cases her organization is the reason athletes know about Para sports in the first place.
Since 1999, GLASA — a nonprofit based in Lake Forest, Illinois — has helped youth and adults in the Midwest engage in adaptive sports, from the development level all the way up to elite competition. Today, the organization sees success in the athletes who make it to the elite level, but also in the incalculable ways in which sports improve lives.
“They’re training just to better themselves,” Housner said. “And it’s really what’s important, is the journey.”
It was one such journey that inspired Housner to found GLASA in the first place. When Jean Driscoll won her first Boston Marathon wheelchair title in 1990, it was in part thanks to the role Housner played at the beginning of her racing career, helping Driscoll get started in the sport as her first coach. Driscoll’s list of accomplishments has since ballooned — she won the Boston Marathon eight times between 1990 and 2000, and has 12 Paralympic medals. But Housner remembers what happened to Driscoll when she first made it to the Paralympic level.
“I just saw her life change,” she said. Housner was also a member of the 1988 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field staff, and said of that experience, “I just saw the lives that are changed because of the Paralympics.”
Housner decided to do whatever she could to give that opportunity to more people. When she founded GLASA in 1999, “My goal was just to get more individuals exposed to adaptive sports and to the benefits of adaptive sports,” she said.
Her new organization was unique for its time — there weren’t many, Housner said, that had a similar mission. And it was tiny at first. When it was first founded, GLASA was run out of Housner’s home. She worked to raise money to support three wheelchair athletes, including by purchasing racing wheelchairs. Gradually, the organization grew, “just little by little, one fundraiser at a time,” and she was able to add more sports to the programming.
Today, GLASA serves 1,100 individuals directly each year, according to its website. The organization helps track and field athletes in a variety of ways, from coaching athletes, to helping them obtain racing wheelchairs or blades through organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation, to hosting clinics, to mentoring, and much more.
Why is there such a variety of programming? That’s because “there’s no cookie cutter way” to support athletes, Housner said. Athletes come from all backgrounds and all ages, and have different goals. They may be recently discharged from the military, or are minors who need help participating in sports at their schools. Regardless of the circumstances, Housner does what she can to make sure they have what they need to participate and to move up the competition ladder.
“We just want to make sure that the athletes and the coaches have as many resources as they can so that they can be successful,” she said.
One of those resources is the Great Lakes Games, a Para competition that GLASA has hosted for over 20 years. In 2019, over 200 athletes participated in the competition, across every GLASA sport and at every ability level. For Housner, the purpose of the Games is twofold.
“It provides an opportunity for the first-time athlete, the first-time racer, to really experience competition,” she said. “But we’ve also been able to grow the Games to bring in the elite competitor that is looking to make the Paralympic Games.”
For these Paralympic Games-bound athletes, the Great Lakes Games provides valuable experience. Housner is excited to see these athletes succeed at the elite level. But she also knows that the Paralympics aren’t every athlete’s end goal, and that for many young athletes, sports are a means to another end — a college education, for one.
“Providing the pathway to go on to college and having the confidence to leave home and to excel with education and to really pursue their dreams beyond sport is absolutely huge,” she said.
It also provides every athlete, regardless of their goals, with valuable life lessons. Confidence is one of them, said Housner. Through GLASA, athletes also get access to a supportive community.
“It’s so much more than just support, it goes beyond that. It’s an inclusive family.”
Mike, a GLASA athlete, spoke on this in a video on the organization’s Facebook page.
“They’ve provided opportunities for us to stay connected, to stay active,” he said. “GLASA is a fun family that I’m so grateful for.”
Another athlete named William said GLASA gave him the opportunity to “meet new friends, be competitive, and to meet people who have the same disability as me.”
Housner knows that her work isn’t done — there are always more athletes to reach, and new ways to spread the word. But the good news is that in the past 20 years, things have only gone up.
“The movement continues to grow,” she said. “And we’re excited to be a part of (it).”