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The importance of inclusion in traditional and adaptive sports programs for athlete well-being

Copyrights: Bee Trofort

The importance of inclusion in traditional and adaptive sports programs for athlete well-being

While full inclusion in traditional youth and adult sport programs is a wonderful goal, para-athletes will realize their full potential if they are able to engage in both traditional and adaptive spots. Adaptive sports programs are both necessary and critical to the health and well-being of our athletes.

My backstory

My 15 year-old son, Ezra, is a congenital above-knee amputee. He acquired a walking prosthesis at 11 months old and a running blade at 4 years. He has participated in traditional youth and school-based sport programs his entire life, playing soccer, baseball, flag football, and basketball, his true passion. He played basketball at a high-level for a club team, winning tournaments with his sharp-shooting, court awareness, and overall hustle. He would play on his running blade, which was fast in transition, but gave him virtually no stability, meaning he essentially plays on one leg. He swam on his junior high team and has competed on his junior high and high school track teams.

However, Ezra has also been involved in the adaptive and Paralympic sports community since he was 5 months-old. Growing up, he participated in multi-sport clinics for years and competed for the first time at the Endeavor Games in Oklahoma when he was 8 years-old. He has had numerous Paralympian mentors since he was a toddler and has scores of friends and peers with similar disabilities. When he was 10 years old, we started Angel City Sports to provide adaptive sports training, equipment and competitive opportunities.  He now participates in over a dozen adaptive sports events each year all over the country and is deeply embedded in the adaptive community as a mentor, mentee, athlete, advocate, and influencer.

Taking flight

Impressively, in 2019 he made the US Paralympic Track team as a 14 year-old, competing at the Junior World Para-Athletics Championships, Para-Pan American Championships, and the World Para-Athletics Championships, where he made the finals in all three of his events (100M, long jump, and high jump).  He is currently training for the Tokyo Paralympic Games to be held in 2021, while attending high school.

Ezra defines himself as an athlete, not a kid with a disability. He has fully accepted himself and his disability, but it does not define him. In fact, his passion for sport is what defines him.

The real question

The real question is, how did he become so confident? Where does it come from? And, how important was access to traditional youth sport programming in his journey? How important was access to adaptive sport programming?

The answer is nuanced and complicated. Definitely friends, family, and mindset are important. But we know he benefited from traditional sport programs that were local and easy for us to get to. This allowed him vastly more playing time, against high-quality opponents, than he would have had otherwise. This accelerated his development as an athlete and kept him in excellent physical condition throughout his childhood. And he was able to play sports with his friends, and make new friends along the way, improving his social skills and emotional well-being.

Challenges abound

However, he faced many challenges along the way. He was cut from two basketball teams even though, according to his teammates, he was good enough to be a starter. He was benched with minimal playing time until his coach, at the end of the season, realized his gifts and abilities. Referees, unfamiliar with disability, claimed he could not play. 

He has faced down huge crowds of spectators pointing and staring at him - the kid missing a leg. He has always been the only athlete with a disability on any team or at any event. He has mostly had unqualified coaches who knew nothing about disability, prosthetics or adaptive sports. He has suffered from over-zealous training programs that jeopardized his physical health. The journey has been fraught with challenges for an athlete who is relatively easy to accommodate and integrate into a traditional sport program.

The solution = adaptive sport programs

Access to adaptive sports programs and the broader community of athletes with physical disabilities enabled Ezra to overcome these challenges. He knows he has a strong, vibrant community to recharge his batteries whenever he needs to. He has a source of expert, specialized coaching allowing him to advocate for more appropriate training regimen with his high school coaches. 

The importance of adaptive sport programs in Ezra’s life was crystallized for me a few years ago as I watched Ezra on the pool deck at large junior high swim meets. He was always the only kid with a disability at the meets. He had to take his leg off and expose his residual limb to the entire audience, sitting and standing right next to the pool as he entered. After his race, he would hop around the pool on one leg to grab his prosthetic leg. This was an emotional experience for me to watch as a parent.

I remember thinking to myself, this kid is so much more resilient than I am.  However, it didn’t seem to bother Ezra much at all. 

And the reason, based on my observations and experience, he was so resilient in that environment was that he has fully accepted himself and has a high-level of self-confidence. And this confidence as an athlete has primarily come his engagement with the adaptive sports community.

The dual strategy

While full inclusion in traditional youth and adult sport programs is a wonderful goal, Ezra became the athlete he is today because we were able to take the best of both traditional and adaptive sports programs. But in my opinion, if we care about the overall well-being of adaptive athletes and their ability to navigate the challenges of participating in traditional sport programs, we should also work to strengthen adaptive sport programs. Adaptive athletes, like Ezra, deserve it.

 

Clayton Frech is a disability advocate and social entrepreneur, with a passion for diversity and inclusion across all sectors of society.  He is the CEO & Founder of Angel City Sports and was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for Move United.

Mr. Frech became involved in the disability community when his first son, Ezra, was born with missing his left knee and left fibula and with only one finger on his left hand. Following Ezra’s passion for sports, Mr. Frech identified major gaps in access to sports programming for athletes with physical disabilities in the U.S., and in 2013, with the help of friends and family, he set out to address them.  In 2015, he produced the first Angel City Games, which is now the largest Paralympic competition in the country, and the West Coast’s most prestigious Paralympic event.  After the first Games, the organization evolved into Angel City Sports, working to create free, year-round access to adaptive sport training, equipment, competitive opportunities like the Angel City Games, presented by The Hartford.

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Article type

News

Author

Clayton Frech

Published

Monday, November 23, 2020 - 18:00

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