Whenever Jordan Kozloski’s parents couldn’t find her at Wal-Mart, they would follow the sound of a dribbling bouncy ball. She’d be underneath a clothes rack, playing with the ball she always had in her hands.
But at her first practice with a new basketball team, at age 8, Kozloski cried. This wasn’t what she wanted.
Her dream was to play stand-up basketball. This was wheelchair basketball.
“I didn’t want people to see me as a disabled child in a chair, I wanted them to see me as another athlete, a person,” Kozloski said.
Despite her initial concerns, the sport came naturally to her, Kozloski said. Her hands got used to pushing a chair. Now, she’s comfortable enough that, in early March, she won a state title with her high school team, the Houston County Sharks.
She also has signed a letter of intent to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Arizona.
“She feels just like an athlete now,” said her dad, Mike Kozloski. “She doesn’t feel any less of anything.”
While the number of athletes competing in adapted high school sports is rising -- by 77 percent in the five years from 2013 to the 2017-18 school year, according to the latest participation survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) -- Kozloski’s journey exemplifies some of the challenges that have inhibited the growth of adapted sports nationwide.
For athletes, those challenges can include being too far away from opportunities, not having equipment that’s specifically made for adapted sports, and living in school districts or states where rules changes that allow for adapted sports can be difficult.
For programs, it's reluctance and funding. Without previous knowledge of adapted sports, the idea can seem foreign. The Great Recession of 2008 completely cut state funding for programs such as Atlanta’s American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), according to co-founder and chief operating officer Tommie Storms.
Since, the Georgia State High School Association (GHSA) and participating schools help provide funding for adapted sports programs through AAASP. The company also benefits from adapted sports equipment sales across the country.
“What is needed, if such a thing that we are doing should ever take shape (nationally), it would need to be through the commitment of something like the U.S. Department of Education or a major funding source,” Storms said. “Somebody (like that) who really gets the mission and wants to get behind it.”
Inclusion history and Atlanta’s impact
Athletes such as Kozloski wouldn’t have the opportunities if not for five-time Paralympian and 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden. In 2005, McFadden sued the Howard County Public School System in Maryland after she wasn’t allowed to race alongside her high school teammates.
School officials claimed her wheelchair was a safety hazard and gave her an unfair advantage. A U.S. District Court Judge ruled the law didn’t specify to “fully include her.”
“That was kind of the ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” said Terri Lakowski, the CEO of Active Policy Solutions and an expert on youth sports policy.
Lakowski and her colleagues at the Women’s Sports Federation at the time realized the law needed to be more clear.
This prompted the Office for Civil Rights to issue a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2013 clarifying Section 504 requirements under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide equal opportunities for students with disabilities. The letter outlined an overview of the requirements, providing specific examples.
“I think we’ve definitely come a long way since I was in high school,” McFadden said on the Fourth of July after she finished competing in this year’s AJC Peachtree Road Race. “I think it’s really important to be that voice … because it’s our job.”
Despite the sport’s growth and the efforts of the Office for Civil Rights, advocates and organizations point to a number of reasons as to why the growth of inclusion isn’t quite aligned with the original vision.
There’s misinformation where parents often associate programs for athletes with physical disabilities as combined with those of the Special Olympics, which works with athletes who have cognitive disabilities. A lack of understanding leads to a lack of knowledge that hinders participation. Then, there’s the school systems, which often don’t have the necessary resources and fear programs will create a financial liability.
Nonetheless, Atlanta-based organizations such as the Shepherd Center, programs like AAASP — which works with schools — and BlazeSports — an adaptive sports program focused on creating athletic programs for youth and veterans — all remain with a goal of alleviating those problems.
AAASP was founded in 1996 after the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. Led by Storms and co-founder and CEO Bev Vaughn, the program set out to create a cross-disability program for adapted sports, with schools focused on reaching local communities. The result was a sports league with a number of options, including wheelchair basketball, handball, football and soccer.
BlazeSports, similar in many ways to AAASP, originated from the same Paralympic Games. The organization is community-based, and while it doesn’t work directly with schools, it provides a liaison for coaches. The two organizations also differ in that AAASP works in wheelchair sports and creates its own respective rules, while BlazeSports works in sports in general, and its rules derive from national governing bodies for sports, such as the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Mara Galic is the interim executive director of operations and evaluation for BlazeSports. She wasn’t exposed to adapted sports until 2007 when she joined the organization and has since been “hooked” after seeing the impact its made.
“There’s some shift, I think we have a lot more work to do, but the needle is shifting,” Galic said about the inclusion efforts.
For AAASP, early challenges were common. For indoor wheelchair soccer, the crew built goals out of PVC pipe wrapped with colored tape. As the program grew, it established a relationship with Flaghouse, a sporting goods company out of New Jersey, which helped develop a line of sporting goods for the organization.
Being the first program of its kind, there were growing pains. The recession of 2008 forced the organization to restructure its revenue streams and funding resources. Both Vaughn and Storms took voluntary salary cuts to keep the sports running.
The best moments, Storms said, were when new parents came in for an introductory workshop for the first time. They brought them to the gym to see their child play on the court. Up and down the court the kid plays, smiling, gleefully, in a way the parents haven’t seen before.
“When we get in that place of we're frustrated, and we just don't know how we're going to take it another step, we just go to the gym,” Storms said.
Kozloski lives in Warner Robins and played for the Houston County Sharks varsity team, a product of AAASP’s wheelchair basketball league. She has worn a prosthetic left leg since a lawnmower accident at age 2.
Five years ago, Kozloski was invited to play with the BlazeSports Jr. Hawks varsity team in Atlanta.
Her family hesitated at first. Warner Robins is more than 90 miles from Atlanta. That meant devoting approximately four hours of commute time, not including the time it takes to practice. But, the hesitation didn’t last long. What changed?
“It was her desire,” said Kozloski’s mother, Sandy.
Georgia doesn’t have a collegiate wheelchair basketball program in any of its universities. Kozloski wanted to play in college, so the only option was to venture out of state. To do so, she had to fully commit while in high school, which meant traveling to national events across the country.
“She’s always had that drive … and we thought it’d be a good idea to let her try,” Mike Kozloski said.
Implementing rule changes
In June 2018, reporters rushed to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Outdoor Track & Field Championships in hopes of talking with Jason Robinson, New York’s first athlete in the wheelchair track & field division.
He was there because of a rule change by the NYSPHSAA in 2018 that allowed Robinson to compete for his high school, awarding one point if he met state-qualifying standard times. Robinson, his family, the school athletic director and his coach, Neal Bartlett, met with the state association to make it possible.
This is something other states often struggle to do. With less than 12,000 athletes competing in adapted sports, it's unlikely each school system will have enough athletes for its respective teams.
“How willing is the state to make changes to create opportunities, and then open those floodgates,” said Lindsey Atkinson, the director of sports and communications assistant at NFHS.
Robinson, a sophomore at Westmoreland High School in New York, is trying to change that.
Born with spina bifida, Robinson can balance on his legs, but has limited ability to walk, so he uses a wheelchair. He started racing at age 10 when his fourth-grade class raised enough money for him to purchase a racing chair and compete in the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, New York.
At the 2018 state high school championships, Robinson, the only athlete in his division at the time, raced against the clock. In New York, the qualifying times — what determines whether an athlete earns her a point for his/her team — are derived from the Adaptive Track and Field USA database.
Robinson finished the 1,600-meter race at the state finals in 4 minutes, .98 seconds, significantly faster than 6:20, the time required for him to earn a medal. He finished the 3,200 in 8:25.38, more than three minutes faster than the medal-standard time of 12:40.
“When you want to be included … you don’t want there to be any differences,” Robinson said. “Yes, there are differences, physical differences, but everyone should be treated equally.”
Ron Lykins is the head wheelchair basketball coach at the University of Missouri and also serves as the coach for the U.S. Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team.
He finds a parallel between inclusion for athletes with disabilities and the growth of women in sport with the passage of Title IX, required men and women be provided equal opportunities to compete in sports.
For students with disabilities, the law (2013 Dear Colleague Letter, Rehabilitation Act of 1973) is there. It is the exposure and buy-in that’s needed for further growth.
“This (sport) was my option to get out there,” Kozloski said. “I just started, just kept swimming, and that’s where my athletic ability grew.”
With further growth, more students like Kozloski and Robinson will get their wish, being viewed as athletes, rather than individuals with disabilities.
“The more opportunities they have and the more the sports are being promoted then it's going to put pressure on schools to meet the needs of these kids,” Lykins said.
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