Illinois experiences sustained success in wheelchair sports

Some of the most successful athletes at the University of Illinois are not household names. They aren’t members of a varsity sport, and most students have probably never heard of them. But they’re there, under the surface, winning Olympic medals while we bemoan the shortcomings of the football team and wonder how many cups of coffee John Groce drinks every morning.

Members of Illinois’ wheelchair track and basketball teams have been dominating collegiate, national and international competition for years now. For the track team this is largely due to the impressive efforts and experience of head coaches Adam Bleakney, and coaching legend Marty Morse before him.

Coaching is key

A dirt bike accident left Morse paralyzed from the waist down when he was 21 years old. After a long and rigorous rehabilitation process, the Maryland native went on to receive his undergraduate and graduate degrees in kinesiology at Illinois while developing a passion for wheelchair sports.

The goal was to learn how and why the body works. After suffering his accident in 1975, Morse dedicated his life to figuring out ways to help himself and others like him succeed.

In his 23 years at Illinois, Morse left a legacy of innovation and accomplishment, coaching athletes such as Jean Driscoll and Adam Bleakney — who would be Morse’s successor — to gold and silver medals at the Paralympics in Barcelona in 1992 and Athens in 2004, respectively.

Bleakney replaced his friend and mentor as head coach of Illinois’ wheelchair track team when Morse retired in 2006. He continued to grow the program, which is technically under The Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, or DRES.

Illinois setting the bar

One of the reasons Illinois is one of the most disability-friendly campuses in the nation is because of the constant support given to the wheelchair track and basketball programs.

Illinois was the first university in the nation to form a wheelchair basketball team. The year was 1948, and innovation was in the air. In April of the very next year, under the leadership and management of Illinois legend Ted Nugent — see Nugent Hall — Illinois held the very first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. The women’s counterpart was organized roughly 20 years later in 1970. The men are currently coached by Matthew Buchi and the women by Stephanie Wheeler, both of whom are Paralympic gold medalists.

Starting to see a trend? I’ll give you a hint: it’s excellence.

DRES is proud of its many wheelchair basketball national championships, 15 belonging to the men’s team, and 14 to the women’s.

Illinois is the epicenter of collegiate wheelchair sports. It’s where athletes go if they want to be the best, as evidenced by the large Illinois contingent of the U.S. track team at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

Recent success

Aside from the historical significance of wheelchair sports at the University, there are several young athletes that are just now earning their stripes.

Among them is sophomore Raymond Martin of Bleakney’s wheelchair track team. In addition to winning four gold medals in London, Martin broke a world record and was nominated for an ESPY for Best Male Athlete with a Disability in 2012 and 2013. His accomplishments in London earned the New Jersey native the impressive title of U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Sportsman of the Year. No small feat for the 20-year-old kinesiology major.

Tatyana McFadden is perhaps the most well known of Illinois’ wheelchair athletes. McFadden left her native country Russia when she was 6 years old with adoptive mother Deborah McFadden, who was then a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tatyana suffers from spina bifida, a developmental congenital disorder that causes paralysis. Racing was a godsend, and boy is she good. McFadden has received medals in each of the last three Olympics, winning three gold medals last year in London alone.

Though McFadden graduated this past spring from Illinois, she continues to represent Illinois wheelchair athletics with her talent and charisma. She won both the London and Boston marathons in April, which were a mere six days apart.

Oct. 13 brings Tatyana’s next test, the Chicago Marathon. If she can win in the Windy City next weekend, she only needs to come in first at the New York marathon on Nov. 3 to capture the elusive “Grand Slam” of four major victories in a single year. It’s a truly impressive goal, and she’s already halfway there.

Illinois has a kind of family tree of coach-athlete relationships. The three current head coaches mentioned — Bleakney, Buchi and Wheeler — are all former Illini athletes in their respective sports, and when accepting their positions, Bleakney and Buchi both took over for their former coaches, Morse and Mike Frogley.

It’s likely this trend will continue, especially with high caliber athletes like McFadden and Martin carrying the torch.

In supporting these spectacular individuals, the University paves the way in gaining greater recognition for wheelchair sports. So give them their due. Cheer them on. They deserve it.

Aryn is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ArynBraun.