8 minute read
The final call for the 50-meter freestyle at the third annual Dairyland Games had been announced, but Henry was still not at his starting block.
Despite repeated attempts to soothe his anxiety, Henry refused to get in the swimming pool, and there was no changing his mind.
I watched from the other side of the pool as he recoiled away from the event officials and into his mother's arms. He buried his face in his hands, hiding himself from a few friendly supporters that gathered nearby to cheer him on.
Henry lives with hemiparesis and his feelings of anxiety and fear are pretty normal, considering he's competing in a sport in front of a crowd. For Henry and other individuals with disabilities of all types, the idea of competing in sports is often unimaginable.
In our current culture, individuals who are identified as "disabled" are often subjected to a large number of perceived and assumed limitations. Society views these individuals, whether consciously or unconsciously, through the lens of their personal barriers rather than through their potential to achieve.
Henry had been categorized as disabled since the day he was born, and he had endured and accepted the limitations associated with his condition his whole life. He was not going to get in the swimming pool for the 50-meter freestyle, simply because he had never thought it possible.
But then I saw it.
It was clear as day. Underneath Henry's fearful exterior and tear-soaked hands that hid his face from the crowd, a slight curiosity was shown. It was an innocent break in his façade, a brilliant flash of excitement, a twinkle of hope, and a sense that he finally belonged.
For the first time in his life, Henry was surrounded by peers who had similar life experiences, abilities, and passion for sports. He was embraced by a newfound community of supporters who acknowledged and championed his potential, not his limitations. Henry did not swim in the 50-meter freestyle that day, but he was forever changed by the possibilities of a newly discovered passion for sports.
In 2016, I founded the Dairyland Games in collaboration with the national chairman of Adaptive Sports USA, Gregg Baumgarten. I met him during his visit to the University of Wisconsin Adapted Fitness Program in my junior year of college. By that point in time, I had served in many volunteer and leadership roles on a local, national, and international level.
After numerous volunteer experiences, I realized that my personal and professional philosophy evolved and blended to form the same mission: to empower individuals with physical disabilities to find their community and to regain their voice. From there, I realized that my life would need to be devoted to something bigger than just community service. I also envisioned being a part of a profession that would be uniquely capable of delivering health services to these same individuals. I was seeking a career that would allow me to think broadly and to impact lives on a larger scale.
When Gregg walked into my Adapted Fitness class nearly 4 years ago, I took the initiative to share this vision with him. Since that time, he has instilled a confidence in me that I can be a catalyst of change as a member of the physical therapy profession.
He served as my mentor during the early planning stages of Dairyland Games, as we both shared the goal of establishing a legacy event in Wisconsin that would promote inclusivity, disability awareness, and equity of access to fitness opportunities for all individuals, regardless of ability or background. This vision quickly became a reality with the help of my current business partner Deb Jenks, who tactfully secured a title sponsorship through her employer SSM Health.
In May 2016, after less than 6 months of planning and coordinating with various sponsors, the Dairyland Games made history by becoming Wisconsin's first and only multisport competition sanctioned by Adaptive Sports USA.
Each year, adaptive athletes of all ages and abilities compete at this event and have the opportunity to qualify for Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals. For some athletes, the Dairyland Games serves as a grassroots event that could eventually lead to a Paralympic career.
At our inaugural event, only 16 athletes from the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association came to Dairyland Games to compete in track and field events. In 2019, Dairyland Games hosted 72 athletes from 8 states across the Midwest, offered a 3-day competition with events in track and field, archery, and swimming, and established free educational and interactive clinics in adaptive powerlifting, para Tae Kwon Do, and wheelchair basketball.
Each year we've had nearly 100 community members of all ages and backgrounds volunteer, and we have welcomed numerous health care vendors and adaptive sports organizations to join us in our efforts to bring a sense of community back to the adaptive athletes.
The Dairyland Games has gained significant momentum in just a few short years, and it serves as the perfect launching ground for adaptive athletes everywhere who have previously sat on the sidelines.
The Dairyland Games staff makes a special effort to recruit first-time athletes because they understand the importance of empowering individuals to take an active role in their long-term health and well-being at an early age. Our recruitment efforts have paid off in this respect, as nearly 35% of our athletes each year are unaffiliated with a registered adaptive sports organization. These statistics indicate that, on average, 1 in 3 Dairyland Games participants have not been exposed to organized sports on a competitive level. We expect our recruitment of first-time adaptive athletes to increase exponentially with improved marketing strategies and targeted efforts to gain national recognition through our partnership with Adaptive Sports USA, the US Paralympic Committee, and major health care sponsors across the country.
We also have retained these athletes, with nearly 70% of participants returning the following year. Most importantly, athletes within our Dairyland network are referred to other community-based programming through partnerships with many Wisconsin-based organizations.
Due to the immeasurable value of our community partnerships and outreach to adaptive athletes, our staff made the decision to incorporate Dairyland Sports 501(c)3 in December 2017 to expand on the success of Dairyland Games and to broaden the mission of our organization.
Dairyland Sports was founded on 3 pillars: disability awareness and advocacy, education and resources for health care professionals and students, and innovative programming for our athletes. I also have involved the University of Wisconsin-Madison Doctor of Physical Therapy Program by securing annual service learning opportunities and group fitness training for local adaptive athletes in the Madison community. Ultimately, the goal of Dairyland Sports is to serve as a "1-stop-shop" for athletes and their families to access regional and national adaptive sports opportunities and, most importantly, to take an active role in their health and wellness through participation in sports and community-based fitness.
A Serving Profession
So what does all this mean for the future of the physical therapy profession? The early successes of the Dairyland Games and other community-based programs indicate that we can engage with our patients on a much larger scale. Community health promotion is the avenue our profession must take to fill the widening gaps in health care and to solve the complex issues of obesity, chronic diseases, and disparities in access to preventive care and community fitness.
By providing new opportunities for underserved populations, volunteering our services to the community, engaging with youth, and stepping outside the confines of the clinical setting, we can become catalysts of change within our communities.
Within our profession, we already have the beginnings of a tremendous movement toward community-based health care. Leaders in the profession have spoken out about the role of a physical therapist in addressing preventable illnesses and providing community-based services.
In the May 2018 issue of PT in Motion, I was particularly intrigued with the fascinating insight these leaders presented in an article titled, "Community Health Promotion: Reaching Beyond the Clinic." The article served as validation that our roles as professionals and members of the community are not all that different, and it reinforced that the future of our profession lies in the connections that we make with patients outside of the hospital or clinical setting.
In a sense, the Dairyland Games represents much more than just an adaptive sports competition—it serves as a symbol of a world in which community-building, inclusivity, and compassion are the norms. It represents a fundamental and systematic change that we must move toward in our approach to health care. This is a world that I strive to live in, and this is a reality that we can attain through innovative and altruistic practices in our everyday lives.
Henry's Story Continues
Today, the Dairyland Games and the athletes who participate continue to thrive. As for Henry? Although he didn't end up swimming at the Dairyland Games, he did watch the entire event surrounded by his family and friends.
Henry was able to connect with peers with different abilities and life experiences. He laughed, he gained confidence in himself, and he was part of a competition, something he hadn't experienced prior to the games.
I was lucky enough to watch him go from an anxious spectator to a confident athlete that weekend. Although he did not participate in swimming, he ended up running track the very next day.
I will never forget the moment I saw Henry sprinting to the finish line, as I sat next to his family in the stands. He crossed the finish line with the biggest smile I have ever seen and his fists pumped in the air.
The Dairyland Games brought a sense of community back to Henry, and my career will be devoted to making this same impact on thousands more.
Jacob Graboski, SPT, is a student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. You can connect with him on Twitter at: @graboski_SPT. To learn more about the Dairyland Games, visit the official website.