Sometimes in sports and in business, purposes align to set visions in an entirely new direction.
Such a convergence happened in 2013 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At the time, Turnstone, a nonprofit organization that has provided services for people with disabilities since the 1940s, was embarking on a capital campaign to expand its complex for adaptive sports events. At the same time, Visit Fort Wayne had commissioned a survey that showed while the city was strong in attracting youth and amateur sports events, adaptive sports could be an avenue on which to focus its sports-marketing efforts, in part because of Turnstone’s plans. Meanwhile, the city was making an effort to improve its public spaces to become more user friendly.
“As my CEO likes to say, it was this happy marriage where three entities were going in the same direction,” said Stephanie Coleman, Visit Fort Wayne’s group sales manager for sports. “It’s been our goal in Fort Wayne to keep adaptive sports in the front of people’s minds.”
Today the vision has become reality as Turnstone’s Fort Wayne venue has become an official Paralympic training site for the sport of goalball (played with teams of blindfolded players on a court, using the sound of the ball to determine where it is in play as they try to score on or defend a goal). The property regularly hosts some of the biggest events in adaptive sports, and the city has been put on the map in the adaptive sports community as a destination that knows how to cater to the specific needs of a growing population.
And when Coleman goes to industry trade shows to bring sports events to her destination, she makes sure to ask about adaptive sports with event organizers. “I always have that on the checklist of questions,” she said. “And they’ll be like, ‘Wow you’re the only person that’s ever asked about it.’”
But perhaps not for long. While Fort Wayne may be the exception, leaders of adaptive sports organizations say times are changing for this segment of the sports-event industry that has seen a rising interest in events, in part because of the number of disabled veterans and active military embracing sports as rehabilitation and in part because of exposure from the Paralympic Games every two years. And with the 2028 Paralympic Summer Games on the horizon for Los Angeles, adaptive sports leaders say to expect more event possibilities in the United States in the months and years to come.
“We have nine years to prepare our network and educate the community to prepare for what will be an onslaught,” said Glenn Merry, executive director of Disabled Sports USA. “That awareness is growing.”
Working With Communities
For decades, two groups have led the way in helping to support organizations that produce competitive events for people with physical disabilities. Founded in 1956, Colorado-based Adaptive Sports USA has helped promote a healthy lifestyle for people with disabilities, including their participation in organized competitive events. The organization has 56 chapters. Meanwhile, Disabled Sports USA, located in Maryland, has been doing something similar since 1967, with about 140 chapters with which it actively engages. Both organizations support chapter members through a combination of services that can include grants, instructor training and officiating, insurance and more to help assist with live sports events. Both also organize at least one significant event on their own.
For Adaptive Sports USA, that event is the Junior Nationals, which typically rotates to different destinations around the country. In 2020 the games will be staged in Denver, with the 2021 event also planned for Colorado. This year’s competition marks the 37th such staging.
Open to youth 6 to 22, the event attracts more than 300 athletes, coaches and family members. Six sports will be staged in 2020: archery, paratriathlon, powerlifting, shooting, swimming, and track and field. “It’s really a great time,” said Susan Rossi, executive director of Adaptive Sports USA. “A lot of families come and use this as their vacation. They come for six, seven or eight days with their mom or dad or the whole family.” In addition, she said, the event can provide a pathway for athletes interested in competing in international competition, including the Paralympic Games.
When it comes to venues, the organization will often look to universities, although a variety of spaces have been used. For swimming events, for example, the organization is targeting quality pools to provide the best experience for the athletes. “We seek venues that are sophisticated,” Rossi said. “We also seek a local team that will take ownership of this and bring a world-class experience to their city for these athletes.” That often includes working with a local organizing committee where the area convention and visitors bureau can play a leading role, along with area groups that have expertise in sports or working with people with disabilities. Local teams are asked to help develop revenue around the event through their contacts in the local market, Rossi added.
Hotels are also paramount, with adequate space needed for athletes who might use a wheelchair. “Not everyone can secure an ADA room if the hotel only has 10 of those rooms,” noted Rossi. Often, minimal if any adjustments are needed in standard rooms if the door width is adequate. But elevator access is important as well. “If there’s only one elevator for 100 athletes utilizing a wheelchair, we typically move on to another hotel,” Rossi said.
The 2019 event was staged in Bloomington and Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Todd Lehrke, director of sports development for the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the local organizing committee took wheelchairs into account early, sending one of its members who is in a wheelchair on a site visit. “He came to the hotel and tested out every room type they offered to see if they could get into the bathrooms and whether they had enough space to work with,” Lehrke said. “Luckily, the hotel had quite a few rooms that worked well for the group.”
The committee also worked with local hotels to enhance the experience for the athletes and families. Committee members obtained a reduced room rate at Great Wolf Lodge along with access to the venue’s water park even for those not staying at the hotel. “The kids were in the water park until it closed at 10 p.m. and were up at 5 o’clock the next morning to swim at their events,” Lehrke said. The committee also arranged for the nearby Mall of America to allow for ice cream socials and team-building exercises. A Gameworks was used for a closing reception, which more than 500 people attended.
“For a destination like Bloomington, that’s a large event for us, but from a goodwill standpoint, overall it was a great event,” said Lehrke. “We’d love to get back in the rotation at some point.”
Training on the Mountain
Meanwhile, Disabled Sports USA turns the attention of its biggest event to the winter, where Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado has hosted the Hartford Ski Spectacular for 32 years. The week-long event is a chance for athletes to try out or perfect skills in skiing and snowboarding, but programs also are offered to introduce participants to Nordic skiing, biathlon, curling and sled hockey. In addition, the event is a key opportunity to train ski instructors in venues around the country to be able to teach disabled athletes how to participate in specific winter sports.
The program has been a success for the adaptive sports community not just at the grass-roots level. More than 80 percent of the last U.S. Paralympic winter team came through the program, said Merry of Disabled Sports USA. But that work starts at events like the Ski Spectacular, he noted. “The unique thing is that although there is a competition at the end of the week, it’s really about bringing people together, some of whom never participate in a winter sport,” Merry said.
The event attracts about 800 athletes and is open to all ages. Although many youth participate, the event also attracts wounded veterans learning their new normal, said Shuan Butcher, DSUSA’s communications manager. This year’s event featured more than 100 wounded military veterans, service members, family and military medical staff from both the United States and Great Britain. “Many of our attendees are brand new, or maybe they’ve skied before but are trying to become more proficient,” Butcher said.
While it is the biggest event the DSUSA organizes itself, the Ski Spectacular is one of many of the organization’s programs. Last year, Disabled Sports USA gave out more than $1 million in grants to supplement programs in its 140 chapters, including programs that provide for training for instructors in various sport activities.
A Turn at Turnstone
At Turnstone in Fort Wayne, hosting adaptive sports events has been part of the organization’s mission since it began in 1946. But the makeover that has occurred in the past five years has allowed the organization to expand what it can offer.
“Back in 2015, we had a dream of where would be in five years,” said Jamie Garzon, Turnstone’s adaptive sports competition and events coordinator. “We wanted to be on the map in the U.S. and the world, and we reached that goal in four years, which was very impressive. But we had the support of the community and Fort Wayne.”
In 2018, the venue became an official Paralympic training site for the sport of goalball. Turnstone also provides a permanent training grounds for the U.S. team, including access to training and housing in a dedicated housing area made possible with support from the local Lions Club.
When it comes to adaptive events, the venue has hosted some of the biggest competitions around. It hosted the Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals in 2018, and in 2019 hosted a 12-day international goalball and blind judo competition for 600 athletes and staff that served as a Paralympic qualifier for goalball and was the highest-ranked event on the blind judo calendar that year. The venue also hosts an edition of the Endeavor Games, an adaptive sports event that began at the University of Central Oklahoma and that has now branched out with a second edition in Fort Wayne.
Coleman of Visit Fort Wayne said the CVB’s close work with Turnstone has benefited events that come to town. That often includes training for hospitality staff, including front-desk staff at hotels and catering staffs to talk about the needs that adaptive sports athletes may have compared with those in traditional sports. At the goalball and judo event in 2019, she said, that included training at the convention center for staff on site.
“This summer, with the athletes eating all their meals at the convention center,” Coleman said, “there was a training prior with the dining staff where it was noted, ‘OK, you’re going to be stationed for the food line so you may have to describe what the food is, you may have to ask if you want it to be plated or not.’ Those are things you don’t have to do with every group. We’re all learning little things along the way.”
Turnstone hosts between nine and 12 major events a year, including many on a smaller scale than the Junior Nationals or a Paralympic qualifier. “For them to come out here and be treated as a first-class athlete makes a huge difference,” Garzon said of the athletes the venue hosts.
And Coleman added that the CVB has found it easy to adjust to the specific needs of adaptive sports athletes. “It’s not like we have to modify things dramatically,” she said. “It’s just being educated on the group you’re about to service.”
A Goal of Inclusion
That message of inclusion is one that organizers of some of the largest events in the adaptive sports space want to spread as well. In the end, inclusion is at the heart of much of the work being done, said Rossi of Adaptive Sports USA. “Our ultimate goal for anyone with a disability is inclusion and integration,” she said. “We want these kids to be on their high school teams and playing sports alongside their peers.”
Merry agrees and said the possibilities on the horizon are one aspect that drew him to disabled sports after serving 12 years as the CEO at U.S. Rowing. “There’s really a huge market that’s untapped, and there’s a huge opportunity to bring the community together,” he said.
“There’s really a huge market that’s untapped, and there’s a huge opportunity to bring the community together.”
Glenn Merry, CEO, Disabled Sports USA
The 2028 Paralympic Summer Games in Los Angeles will provide one of those opportunities as attention is turned to the range of adaptive sports that are competed at the international level. The 2012 Games in London, for example, were seen as a turning point in that country when it comes to awareness of adaptive sports.
Merry said the opportunities are there as well for a similar benefit in the United States, although attention needs to be paid to the amateur athletes still discovering the possibilities of adaptive sports, especially 5- to 10-year-olds.
“The bigger opportunity is to change American culture through youth sports, whether that is Pop Warner or Little League or school rec leagues or the Y, that they have the opportunity to have inclusive, adaptive sports models that allow kids with all kinds of physical disabilities to participate,” Merry said. “We want to start with the youth, go up to the high school level and then the NCAA so we really have inclusive models throughout our society. It’s a long game, but I think it’s worth the investment.”