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  • Lara Nordell

Adaptive Athletics: Challenging The Game

When Ryan asked me about maybe writing something new for the RVX blog, I wasn’t really sure what to do. We chatted about a number of different topics (which might just show up here at a later date) and he suggested something that’s actually near and dear to me.

I did my undergraduate degree in what would now be considered kinesiology. During my studies, I covered everything from outdoor education, athletic therapy and dance, to biomechanics, history and exercise physiology. One of the required classes was Adapted Physical Education. During this class, we were exposed to a number of different adapted sports and activities while learning the physiology associated with various disabilities. Although interesting, it wasn’t until my final year that I assisted with a research study through the Steadward Centre (in those days it was known as the Rick Hansen Centre). This study was my first real exposure to persons with disabilities and a fascination with disability sport. As a result, I pursued graduate studies in adapted physical education, completing my thesis work related to the sport of wheelchair basketball.

Disability sport is relatively new as it wasn’t until after World War I that the general perception of persons with disabilities started to change. Prior to that, the science of Eugenics was widely accepted, whereas after WWI, injured veterans were looked at as heroes and there was a move from segregation to inclusion. Major developments in plastic surgery, prosthetics and rehabilitation, in addition to improvements in housing, helped to facilitate independence for persons with disabilities. During and after WWII, a number of spinal-injury units were set up in Great Britain to assist the injured. One such unit at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital was led by Dr. Ludwig Guttman. Dr. Guttman was a neurosurgeon known for making the first significant breakthroughs in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. In addition to physical rehabilitation, Dr. Guttman believed that sport and competitive activities helped to restore a sense of hope for these injured veterans and included activities such as darts, wheelchair polo, netball and archery in his programs. On July 29, 1948, Stoke Mandeville hosted the first competitive wheelchair games. This corresponded with the opening of the 1948 London Olympic Games. At the time, Guttman predicted that there would one day be a disabled equivalent to the Olympic Games.

Following this first gathering in 1948, additional games were held in 1950 and 1952 which saw the addition of Dutch injured ex-servicemen. These games became known as the Paralympic Games. By 1960 they were held every four years and hosted by various cities; the Rome games in 1960 saw 400 athletes participate from 23 countries. The first Winter Paralympic Games were held in Sweden in 1976 and also continue to be held every four years. Contrary to what most believe, Paralympics does not refer to paraplegia (spinal cord injury affecting the lower body). Paralympics actually means parallel games to the Olympics. Since the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea and the 1992 Albertville Winter games, the Paralympics have taken place in the same locations, using the same facilities as the Olympic Games due to an agreement between the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees.

The first and founding president of the International Paralympic Committee was Dr. Robert Steadward, a professor at the University of Alberta. I was very lucky to have Dr. Steadward as my graduate advisor. There are currently over 15,000 registered Paralympic athletes from over 25 different Paralympic sports. It is important to know that Paralympic sports are different from the Special Olympics. Traditionally, Paralympic sports focus on physical limitations and competition whereas Special Olympics focuses primarily on participants with cognitive impairments and both inclusion and friendly competition. Each Paralympic sport uses some variation of a functional classification system to allow those with various levels or severities of impairments due to their disabilities, to participate. This helps to ensure that the winner is the best athlete, not the athlete with the least impairment. This often adds a significant level of complexity for the training and coaching of each sport.

Around the same time that I started my graduate work, my then boyfriend (and later husband) started working for the Northern Lights Wheelchair Basketball Association running the school and recreational programs. Growing up as a competitive skater and swimmer, team sports were never really my forte but in order to learn more about the sport, my roommate and I joined the women’s team. She played standup ball throughout high school so was much more skilled than I, but we had a great time and learned an entirely new sport. In Canada, able-bodied people are allowed (and encouraged) to play wheelchair basketball. This helps with increasing competition and the number of athletes available to play. The sport uses something called a functional classification system to assign point values to each player based on their functional strength and movements in the chair. For example, a high level of paraplegia causing paralysis and loss of muscle function below the chest level will limit a players ability to rotate from the waist to catch a pass or reach to the side or front to grab a ball without having to hold on to the chair to prevent a loss of balance. This player is assigned a point value of 1.0 whereas an able-bodied player or a player with a disability who has no impairment above the knees is assigned a 4.5. Typically no more than 14 points are allowed to play on the floor at one time, therefore, providing everyone with a place on the team. It does make it more challenging for a coach who has to ensure his line-ups take in to account each players point value. When it comes to international competition and national team players, each player must have a disability.

That was 24 years ago and although I didn’t pursue a career related to disability sport, my husband continues to coach wheelchair basketball at a competitive level. He’s attended three Paralympics as part of the Canadian Men’s Wheelchair Basketball coaching staff, numerous Para-Pan Am and World Championships and too many national and international tournaments to count. I did spend a number of years as a wheelchair basketball classifier, including attending the Canada Winter Games in 1997 as a technical official (interestingly enough, wheelchair basketball is a winter sport for the Canada Games). Being involved with this sport has afforded me and my family a number of opportunities, the best of which is meeting a number of amazing people. Often when you see someone in a wheelchair or with a disability, people are afraid to stare or are unsure how to speak to them. I remember my roommate telling me that before she played wheelchair basketball she felt uncomfortable around persons with disabilities but after playing, she was more interested in their story. My 13-year-old daughter is now playing wheelchair basketball purely because of the enjoyment of the game. It isn’t uncommon for siblings or friends of those with disabilities, to come and try the sport but stick around because they enjoy it.

I don’t think of my experience or exposure to disability sport to be unique or special, because, for my family and me, it’s just normal. There is an ongoing joke between my husband and those of our wheelchair using friends that we bought a four-level split with no bathroom on the main floor and didn’t think of them. This is also why we have a makeshift ramp in our garage for when friends come to visit. In 2012 I had an opportunity to work with a small international group interested in developing a functional classification system for figure skating. In 2017, Skate Canada reach out to a colleague and me to help them develop and implement guidelines that will allow persons with disabilities to participate and compete. This past July we trained a number of physicians, physical therapists and skating coaches in the classification system. Although in the very early stages, it is exciting to see this sport opening to those with impairments. Who knows, maybe one day you will see figure skating at the Paralympic Games.

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