It’s been a busy summer for the athletes of Arizona Disabled Sports. Although many sports are currently in their offseason, some of the nonprofit’s athletes are traveling cross-country and preparing for national competitions.
Already this summer, two of the organization’s power soccer teams, which play a fast-paced game of soccer in motorized wheelchairs, have won second and third places at national competitions. The wheelchair basketball season ended in April with a national tournament, and a group of six AzDS athletes competed in the inaugural, multi-sport Angel City Games in Los Angeles in mid-June.
Eight athletes and a guide runner competed at the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in Minnesota, and in mid-July, a group of six athletes and two coaches headed to New Jersey for the National Junior Disability Championships, a seven-day event featuring sports including swimming, archery and track and field.
“The summer time is kind of like – all of our seasons kind of build up between April and July,” says Lane Gram, executive director of Arizona Disabled Sports. “There’s a lot of travel and a lot of national events.”
Now in its 25th year, the organization offers people with developmental and physical disabilities the opportunity to play and compete at the highest levels in sports such as basketball, floor hockey, kayaking, swimming, track and power soccer.
Gram estimates that her organization uses about 1,500 volunteers in a year, adding, “That’s just a testament of how embraced and involved the community is.”
ONCE IS RARELY ENOUGH
Gram recalled one family who came daily to volunteer during the Desert Challenges Games, a four-day event where athletes compete in sports such as track and field, swimming and archery.
Gram asked the family, “‘What gets you to come out here on a Saturday morning at five with your kids? What gets your kids out of bed?’”
Though the family had signed up to volunteer for only one day, the mother said the experience of volunteering “was so empowering and educational for their kids that they came back two more days after that and just kept trying to give back,” Gram says. “They felt like it was really eye-opening for their kids to realize maybe how much they take for granted.”
Adults, too, can benefit from the experience of volunteering, Gram says.
“You come and watch somebody running the track who is a double, above-the-knee amputee and maybe has fought in the war and is going through post-traumatic stress disorder, and it just kind of gives you a little perspective,” she says.
While the organization is embraced by a portion of the community, it still faces challenges.
“Most people in the community do not know that we exist and that has an impact on everything – financial, athletes and volunteers – and everything trickles down from not being able to have a billboard or a television spot or anything big because we’re such a small nonprofit,” Gram says.
A few weeks ago Gram met a native of Mesa with cerebral palsy who could’ve been participating with the organization since he was five, but he had just found out about it at age 18, she says.
“Unless the parents are actively Google searching, or figuring out about the organization or searching for that outlet for their kid, it’s like a secret, and we need more awareness in the schools for these kids to have the opportunity that other kids have,” she says.
THE BATTLE FOR AWARENESS
As the organization grows, it is also trying to add events to increase community awareness.
Currently, Arizona Disabled Sports has four major fundraising events, including a golf tournament, a fashion show and a 5K and 10K run event. The largest event is the Annual Ability Ball, which will occur on Oct. 3. The event is in its 22nd year.
The ball features dinner, music, dancing, live and silent auctions and presentations for athletes. With 300 people typically bidding, Gram says the organization continues to try and provide new, unique items and experiences to be auctioned.
“We had a chef that came and he would cook dinner in your home for 10 of your friends – a four course meal and wine provided,” she says.
In addition to raining money, the annual Run, Walk and Roll 5K and 10K in January helps build community awareness through showcasing what the organization does and encouraging people to volunteer.
“We’ve got our athletes out there – our track racing athletes, our cyclists and our Team Mesa Bulldogs will walk the one mile,” Gram says. “It’s more of an opportunity for us to embrace about 600 people from the community and encourage them to volunteer at some point.”
ACCESS FOR ALL
Arizona Disabled Sports offers multi-layered opportunities to two different groups.
Team Mesa Adaptive Programs serve athletes with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Arizona Heat Physically Challenged Programs work with athletes with physical disabilities. Last year, 1,200 athletes with developmental or intellectual disabilities and 175 athletes with physical disabilities participated with the organization.
The two programs feature varied levels of competition, as the participants have different preferences. While some of the athletes are very competitive others are “recreational and don’t care to go to bigger competitions and just meet with their friends every week,” she says.
“I meet athletes all the time that are like ‘I’d rather do theater than be in a sport.’ I totally get it. Just because you’re in a power chair doesn’t mean you should play power soccer and would love it,” Gram says. “It’s still like any other person. They don’t have to be an athlete.”
In addition to the various levels available, participants also have access to coaching and adaptive equipment through AzDS, which can be very expensive, Gram says.
“A hand cycle, for example, can be about $3,000, and that’s custom made so it gets even more expensive, so we provide that,” she says.
Athletes pay the $35 registration fee per sport. There are also scholarships available if the fees pose a barrier.
“The last thing we want to do is ever discourage someone from participating because of a fee,” Gram says.
COMPETING AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS
Gabe Trujillo, 32, a power soccer competitor and Arizona Disabled Sports ambassador, was introduced to the organization almost 10 years ago while writing a story on adaptive sports programs for ASU’s student newspaper, The State Press.
“I was actually going to do a story on the quad rugby team at ASU when they weren’t in practice at the time, so they pointed me in the direction of this new adaptive program in Mesa called Arizona Disabled Sports,” he says.
Trujillo was an active athlete – playing soccer and baseball – before a rare form of polio prevalent in asthmatics called Hopkins syndrome left him with quadriplegia in 1997. Arizona Disabled Sports provided him a chance to continue his athletic pursuits.
“It was kind of a bummer to think that my days of being an athlete were over, so when I finally stumbled upon AzDS, it sort of reinvigorated my competitive spirit and allowed me to be an athlete again,” he says.
Now, Trujillo plays professional-level power soccer, billed as “the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users,” according to the sport’s governing body, the United States Power Soccer Association. The game features two teams of four players and is played in a gym on a regulation basketball court. Each players’ wheelchair is outfitted with a guard made of metal bars that run from the sides of the chair and around in front of the foot pedals. The guard is used to strike and maneuver a 13-inch soccer ball.
One of his favorite memories as an ambassador was speaking about power soccer at the annual golf tournament fundraiser.
“I was able to showcase what my soccer guards look like and then I went and talked about my time with the power soccer team and just basically shined a spotlight on the sport,” he says, adding, “I think it definitely turned a few heads when I showed them what the guard looked like and they were able to see just how powerful the chairs were.”
Trujillo says the assistance of volunteers is vital to accomplishing the organization’s goals.
“Not only are we looking for athletes and members to participate, if there’s people who just enjoy volunteering and are looking for a fun program to help support we definitely encourage them to stop by and try out all of our great programs as well,” he says.
Visually impaired athlete and ambassador John Countryman, 28, competes in bowling, cycling and track and field events. He’s also come in at first place in archery at the Desert Challenge Games, a sport he’s fallen in love with. He counts his limited eyesight as a plus in this sport.
“I have great central, just no peripheral (vision), so archery is kind of a plus for me because I have no distractions when I’m shooting – it’s just me and the target,” he says.
Competing with Arizona Disabled Sports has helped Countryman try new things and remain active.
“Arizona Disabled Sports has really helped me a lot; building my confidence and helping me realize that I can do some things,” he says. “It might not be as easy as it was before, but as long as I keep with it and I have a little bit of help via coaches or special equipment or whatever it might be, I can still do it.”
His biggest piece of advice for prospective participants is to give new experiences and sports a try.
“Try it at least once. If you don’t like it after that first time, then there you go, but you gave it a try and you know for sure one way or another,” he says. “I didn’t think I could run. I didn’t want to run, but they (the coaches) encouraged me and kind of gave me a nudge and I ran, and I’m like ‘wow, I can do this.’”