Wildcats at Paralympics Extend Long History of Competition
A sizable group of current and former UA athletes is participating in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
On a cold evening in London in 2012, a crisp breeze hit the faces of 4,237 athletes as they waited and listened to the roars of the crowd in the distance.
Emotions ran high for all of the athletes during the 2012 Paralympic Games in anticipation of entering a stadium filled with 80,000 screaming spectators.
"It was unbelievable to see all of the American flags in the stands and people going crazy when we came into the stadium," said Bryan Barten, a Paralympian and head coach of the University of Arizona wheelchair tennis team, who attended that year. "It's something that will be burned into my mind for the rest of my life."
The 2012 Games were the largest in Paralympic history — until this year.
The 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have surpassed the record, with 4,350 participating athletes from 176 countries. The athletes — including several with UA affiliation — are competing in 528 medal events.
Barten has been the UA's wheelchair tennis coach since 2007 with the Disability Resource Center's Adaptive Athletics, which consistently has been represented in the Paralympic Games. This year, Barten is competing in the Paralympics in Rio alongside 10 other current and former UA athletes. Four of the athletes he coached personally.
"It's great doing my own competition, but I am emotionally invested in those other players, also. I have been looking forward to watching them compete, and I wish them all of the best," Barten said.
In addition to Barten, Jennifer Poist, who competed in 2012 in London, made the U.S. women’s basketball team with former UA wheelchair basketball athlete Darlene Hunter. Poist and Hunter finished their pool play against France, China, the Netherlands and Algeria, advancing to the quarterfinals.
David Wagner, a former Arizona tennis player, won in the first round in tennis against Israel's Itai Erenlib and then in the quarterfinals against Japan's Mitsuteru Moroishi. Wagner also is competeting in men's doubles with teammate Nick Taylor. The duo won in the semifinals against Israel's Erenlib and Shraga Weinberg and now will play for the gold medal.
Players Chad Cohn and Josh Wheeler, community members who are connected with Adaptive Athletics, are competing in wheelchair rugby. Their first game is scheduled for Wednesday against France.
Also, Dana Mathewson, a graduate student at the UA, played singles tennis. She won in the first round Saturday against Britain's Louise Hunt, then lost in the second round to Aniek Van Koot of the Netherlands. Mathewson also played women's doubles with Kaitlyn Verfuerth, winning the first round against Brazil's Rejane Candida and Natalia Maynara and losing in the second round against the Netherlands' Marjolein Buis and Diedre de Groot.
Several UA athletes are competing to defend individual titles, including track star Shirley Reilly. Reilly finished fifth in the finals of the 400-meter run, and her next event is the semifinals of the 800 meters.
The Olympics and Paralympics are the pinnacle of competitive experience.
"It's the one time you're playing for your country," Barten said. "Having USA on your back changes things. There's more pressure and responsibility to represent your country. We have the greatest country in the world. I'm so honored to be able to represent it through sport."
UA Adaptive Athletics, the largest and most comprehensive collegiate-based program in the country, has a long history of sending athletes to compete in the Paralympics.
Mike Sclappi was the first UA Adaptive Athletics athlete to be sent to the Paralympics for basketball in 1988. The men's basketball team took gold that year.
Adaptive Athletics originally was created in 1974 as a club sport for disabled Vietnam veterans. The UA program offers an avenue for disabled individuals to not only compete on a global scale but also to have the opportunity to obtain a college education. Over the course of its 42 years, it has expanded from one basketball team to six competitive teams: rugby, tennis, men's basketball, women's basketball, track and road racing, and handcycling.
On July 29, 1948, the first Paralympic Games were created, known as the Stoke Mandeville Games for wheelchair athletes. The Games eventually were renamed the Paralympic Games at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The word Paralympic derives from the Greek word "para," meaning alongside, and these the parallel Games to the Olympics, which were held in Rio in August.
Since the 1980s, Adaptive Athletics has sent a total of 31 athletes.
"We get athletes from all walks of life, even international athletes, who want to spend time at the UA, which wouldn't be possible without the program," Barten said.
UA athletes have gone on to become registered nurses, CIA agents, engineers and professionals in numerous other occupations.
"My biggest achievement as a coach is seeing our athletes achieve their goals," Barten said. "The fundamentals we are teaching go way beyond this program."
Athletic Director David Herr-Cardillo, the creator of the program, has seen hundreds of athletes come through the UA.
"When I recruit, I always tell the potential student and their parents that competitive sports allows you to learn life skills that will carry with you forever," Herr-Cardillo said.
"Whether you are playing sport or not, they are the same skills you need in the workplace: responsibility, work ethic, the understanding of what your teammates are expecting of you and what expectations you have of them," he said. "What I enjoy most about the Games is when the athletes return. The buzz that came back from the London Games was so infectious because they had such a good time. It'll be interesting to see what their experiences were like in Rio."
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