By Michael Staton, Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences
If the typical, everyday wheelchair is built for comfort, those designed for adaptive sports athletes are built for speed. They’re less bulky and the wheels slant inward. They have a lower back and maneuver like a dream. They can also be a real pain to deal with in an airport.
Adaptive sports athletes have to bring an everyday and sport chair when traveling, so the latter becomes equipment storage that the athlete pushes in front of them. This one-person, two-chair convoy has to contend with baggage claim, escalators, security and every other hassle inherent to an airport.
For Jeff Townsend, this is just another stop on the way to a wheelchair tennis match or basketball game. Jeff is a longtime adaptive sports athlete and coach who now serves as a lecturer in Sullivan Foundation partner school Clemson University’s parks, recreation and tourism management department. Seamlessly transitioning two chairs at once up and down an escalator is muscle memory for him at this point.
However, this was all new for Clemson student Marsden Miller, who is just now getting the hang of life as an adaptive sports athlete. When he and Jeff ventured down to Orlando, Florida for the National Wheelchair Tennis Collegiate Championship hosted by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), Jeff was there to support his teammate, but also to share travel tips and tricks with Marsden.
Jeff’s wife, Jasmine, is also a faculty member in the department. She describes herself as the “volunteer gear schlepper,” and she never tires of the reactions she sees as she trails behind Jeff in airports. Those reactions took on a whole new meaning with Marsden beside him during the trio’s trip to Orlando.
“I’ll admit I got a little teary-eyed in the airport seeing Jeff and Marsden all decked out in Clemson gear pushing these two wheelchairs in front of me,” Jasmine said. “Marsden wants nothing more than to be a Clemson athlete traveling from match to match, and Jeff’s there giving him all these tips for getting through the airport. Meanwhile everyone we pass wants to know who these guys are, what they’re doing and where they’re going.”
Even at the time, Jasmine knew what everyone in that airport was seeing: the first student from Clemson to play wheelchair tennis in a tournament, and the faculty member that was stepping up to not only round out Clemson’s wheelchair tennis team but serve as a mentor—in more ways than one—to that athlete.
It has always been Jeff and Jasmine’s goal to start a true collegiate adaptive sports team wherever they ended up and starting small—even with a team of two—is still a start. There aren’t many collegiate adaptive sports programs across the country, but Jeff says he wants to help make Clemson one of those standout programs.
“It’s important to implement because where there are opportunities for sports, there should be opportunities for everyone to get involved,” Jeff says. “Clemson leads the way in athletics in many ways, and it could be one of those programs leading the way in collegiate adaptive sports.”
‘Just like that, we had a team’
The trip to Orlando wasn’t just special for Marsden because he was getting his first taste of tournament travel; it was special because he was heading to his first ever singles and doubles matches. Jeff and Chuck McCuen, Clemson’s director of tennis operations, had learned only three weeks beforehand that the Southern USTA would fund a Clemson team’s trip to its late-April tournament.
Collegiate wheelchair tennis teams require at least one student athlete, but the remainder of the team can be comprised of faculty members such as Jeff. The only other requirement is that athletes must have a lower limb disability, so the field is open to amputees as well as people with cerebral palsy and spina bifida.
Jeff and Marsden both have spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly. Jeff wasn’t just the first wheelchair tennis athlete Marsden ever met; he was also the first person Marsden ever met who also had spina bifida.
“Marsden had been playing intramural wheelchair basketball at Clemson with me, so I asked if he wanted to start playing tennis and travel to this tournament,” Jeff says. “He said ‘sure,’ and just like that we had a team.”
Chuck, who coached 14 years with Clemson’s tennis team and 19 years at Georgia State University, stepped up to become coach for the two-person wheelchair tennis team. Ever modest, Chuck says the team probably could have done better with its selection of coaching staff, but he is literally the most qualified man for the job.
Chuck founded the first collegiate wheelchair tennis team in U.S. history at Georgia State. Despite what Chuck might say about his qualifications, Jeff and Marsden think he’ll do just fine.
“I knew we needed to practice, so we practiced every day for three weeks leading to that tournament, very often as early as 5 a.m.,” Chuck says. “These guys are no joke. They’re both serious competitors and serious athletes.”
Chuck says Jeff and Marsden were both positive and open minded despite the short amount of time they had to prepare. While Jeff brought his experience as an adaptive sports athlete and Paralympian, Marsden brought a real hunger to play and to be a part of the program.
Chuck says he and Jeff concentrated on helping Marsden learn the basics of the game, from what’s counted as in and out to how to best grip the racket and wheels simultaneously. According to Chuck, Jeff spent these first few weeks concentrating a little more on the technical aspects of the game and strategy.
In Orlando, Jeff made it to the semi-finals in his division, ultimately losing in that round. Marsden says he experienced some growing pains, but despite that he ended up winning his first singles match in the tournament. Jeff and Marsden, playing doubles, beat Michigan State in the first round match up but lost to San Diego State in the semi-final round.
“I really couldn’t believe that I was even able to do what I did in Orlando,” Marsden says. “To be able to go and win a singles and doubles match in that first trip was definitely the most memorable thing for me so far on this team.”
When Jeff and Marsden returned from the tournament, practice didn’t slow down. With the exception of some days off during the summer, Jeff and Marsden have met Chuck regularly at the indoor tennis complex for hours of practice multiple days a week.
“They both have the tools to really be great,” Chuck says. “Jeff went from a good player to, at times, an elite player implementing the strategies we had trained on. Marsden proved after only a few weeks of practice that he could hold his own against a high-level player from another school. He really improved in a short period of time.”
Getting a Clemson baseline
For faculty in the parks, recreation and tourism management department, this relationship with adaptive sports is hardly a first. Jasmine and Jeff have worked with students in the department’s recreational therapy program to introduce adaptive sports to global audiences, most notably in Thailand during summer 2018.
Jeff, Jasmine and a host of faculty and students further developed adaptive sport programs across Thailand while promoting inclusion in recreation. In addition to providing coaching skills, the program helped to shape coaches’ perspectives on people with disabilities by expanding awareness of their potential. Jasmine says the lessons learned during the program in Thailand were applicable everywhere, including Clemson’s own backyard.
“We learned that you can’t just concentrate on skill building in adaptive sports, you have to also put in the work when it comes to attitudes toward players with disabilities,” Jasmine says. “These two facets were necessary in Thailand, and they’ll also be what the Clemson campus community will need to focus on as well.”
Before starting this work toward building an inclusive environment for current and future student athletes with disabilities, Jasmine wanted to get a baseline. Jasmine, fellow faculty member Brandi Crowe and three recreational therapy graduate students conducted research over spring and summer 2019 in the department’s Adaptive Sport and Recreation Lab housed in Clemson’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences.
They surveyed 525 undergraduate and graduate students across a variety of majors and 25 faculty or staff members from various departments with the aim to understand the Clemson climate toward individuals with disabilities. The research explored attitudes about discrimination, inclusion, prospects for the future and perceptions of potential gains in life.
The survey results indicated that Clemson has a slightly negative leaning attitude toward individuals with disabilities. The lowest scores came from questions regarding the prospects respondents think individuals with disabilities should have in their lives. The respondents tended to think they should have low expectations, that they shouldn’t be hopeful about their future and that sex should not be discussed with people with disabilities.
However, Jasmine points out that Clemson respondents had higher than average scores with regards to attitudes about discrimination and potential gains. In other words, the respondents were overwhelmingly opposed to taking advantage of individuals with disabilities or treating them as if they have no feelings. Respondents also had a positive view of the gains an individual can make in wisdom, strength and determination because of their experience having a disability.
“These findings are both encouraging and discouraging at the same time, obviously,” Jasmine said. “I think this makes it clear that there is work to be done in order to improve the climate toward individuals with disabilities on Clemson’s campus.”
Jasmine shared her early findings with Lee Gill, Clemson’s chief inclusion and equity officer, and others in the Clemson’s office of inclusion and equity. According to Gill, the first step in changing attitudes toward students with disabilities is making Clemson more inviting to that population, both in a physical and emotional sense.
As with issues surrounding gender, race or sexual orientation, Gill said the only way to create lasting change is to create opportunities for all students to engage with people with disabilities. That can’t happen if those individuals aren’t on campus or have no reason to be on campus, and he sees the formation of a wheelchair tennis team as the first of many steps in the right direction for Clemson in this regard.
“Real relationships and engagement with people with disabilities are the only ways to change attitudes, and Jasmine’s findings do nothing but confirm that for me,” Gill said. “I applaud Jasmine for taking the initiative to get a team going at Clemson; it’s hard to think of a better avenue to start forging those relationships than through sports, which already do so much to positively develop young people.”
Right place, right time
Jasmine doesn’t deny that there’s a great deal of work ahead to build the sport of wheelchair tennis and then, hopefully, build a team for wheelchair basketball and various adaptive track and field events. Unfortunately, higher education institutions are often forced to recreate the wheel when it comes to introducing and growing adaptive sports programs.
The thesis of a Clemson master’s student working with Jasmine, Breida Hill, is currently exploring the organizational structures of existing intercollegiate adaptive sports programs in the U.S. Hill has interviewed program directors and coaches from established and new programs across the country; she has found that program structure, funding and staffing vary greatly from program to program.
Hill has also found that there is little consistency in how programs form, which would explain the challenge inherent to building an adaptive sports program. Jasmine and Jeff have tackled these challenges one by one, so they hope that the “Clemson way” might become the standard for other programs regionally or nationally.
Jasmine said Clemson’s wheelchair tennis team has been lucky that there is no shortage of people at Clemson who know how to assemble a team, or at least there is no shortage in motivation. All of the pieces seem to be falling into place, and she can’t help but think that this program was meant to happen in Clemson.
“Jeff and I happen to end up in the same place as the first wheelchair tennis coach in the country, and we have had the support of a very open-minded and positive dean, provost’s office, inclusion and equity office and athletics department. Everyone just wants the best for its student athletes,” Jasmine said. “Things have happened fast, and the attitude toward this team has just been infectious.”
That support has also come in the form of in-state tuition waivers for incoming, out-of-state students who will play on the wheelchair tennis team. This begins to level the playing field for any student interested in the program from across the country because the trick for this team—and for almost any other adaptive sports team across the country—is establishing a pipeline of athletes.
The adaptive sports community is tight knit, so word of Clemson’s team has already started to spread to those athletes engaged in the sport. Some have already expressed interest or committed to attend Clemson because a court, coach and place on the team are waiting for them.
However, having a team exist at all on the college level acts as “the carrot” for young adaptive sports athletes. The benefits of involvement in team sports for youth are numerous, from improved physical fitness and self-esteem to the social aspects of playing and training with teammates. Students with spina bifida or cerebral palsy often have to sit on the sidelines and watch as able-bodied athletes reap those benefits because youth adaptive sport opportunities are limited, especially in South Carolina.
Had wheelchair tennis and a team already existed at Clemson before Miller became a student, he said he certainly would have pursued it from the moment he arrived on campus. Miller works part time at Clemson’s football training complex, and he has always wanted to play sports for all the same reasons that drive the Clemson football players he sees day in and day out.
Jasmine said the success of athletes such as Marsden will motivate young athletes in middle or high school to seek out opportunities to play a sport. She refers to the problem as a “chicken and egg” situation that many higher education institutions are faced with: should it build adaptive sports programs before it has athletes or should it find athletes first?
Jasmine said the solution should be both at once, because young people and their parents won’t seek out opportunities they don’t know about. She said opportunities need to exist in communities so that students are ready when they come to Clemson.
“Clemson introducing an adaptive sports team is a great first step toward including athletes of all ability levels, but it’s bigger than that,” Jasmine said. “It doesn’t just open opportunities for adaptive sports athletes on the college level; partnering with community parks and recreation organizations and tennis clubs around the state can create a path for those young people who don’t even know the option is there in the first place.”
This story was edited slightly from the original article appearing on the Clemson University website.