Game Changers

Wheelchair sports have evolved a great deal over a relatively short period of time and these 10 people have made an impact on that growth which continues to be felt today.

It’s been 66 years since the first Stoke Mandeville Games in England and it’s amazing to think how much wheelchair sports have changed and grown over that seemingly small time frame.

What’s even more fascinating to consider is all the people who’ve helped get wheelchair sports to where they are today. No matter what sport, at some point somebody had to adapt it for play by people with spinal-cord injuries or disease (SCI/D). New rules had to be created, different techniques developed, equipment had to be adapted or constructed and word of the sport had to be spread.

Since January starts the 40th year of SPORTS ’N SPOKES magazine, we decided this month’s issue was a good time to take a look at 10 people we believe have had some of the biggest impact on the wheelchair sports world. Our list isn’t limited to any one group and we’re not handing out awards. It’s simply the people we believe have been real “Game Changers” when it comes to wheelchair sports.

Ludwig Guttmann

No story about influential people in wheelchair sports can be written without the man considered to be “The Father of the Paralympic Games,” Ludwig “Poppa” Guttmann, MD. A Jewish neurologist, Guttmann fled Nazi Germany just before the start of World War II and arrived in Great Britain in 1939. Guttmann was doing spinal-cord injury research when the British government asked him to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England.

Physical training and sports played a big part in treating people with SCI/D at Stoke Mandeville. Guttmann believed both were essential for helping people build physical strength and self-respect. The games and activities used in rehabilitation led to the creation of the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948.

Guttmann had big plans for his event, so those first Games purposely started the same day as the Summer Olympic Games in nearby London. The inaugural Stoke Mandeville Games featured 14 men and two women competing in archery. The event continued to be held every year and in 1952 a Dutch team came over to participate and the first international Games began.

It was decided to hold the Games in the same country as the Olympics and in 1960 the International Stoke Mandeville Games were held in Rome with 350 athletes from 24 countries. The Games continued along that pattern and the term “Paralympic Games” was officially adopted in 1984.

Guttmann’s ideas to incorporate sports as a way to better help people with SCI/D recover and return to society have turned into the largest sporting event in the world for people with disabilities.

Timothy Nugent

Any list of influential people in wheelchair sports is sure to be filled with those who helped get something started. That’s the case for Timothy Nugent and basketball.  

A World War II veteran, Nugent created wheelchair basketball teams at the University of Illinois and formed the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) in the late 1940s. He also created the first comprehensive program of higher education for people with disabilities at Illinois.

Wheelchair basketball wasn’t new when Nugent got involved with the sport. It was being used as part of the rehabilitation program at several Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals as early as 1946. However, Nugent decided to unite those various teams into one organization and streamline the rules.

A big believer in the power of sports to help people with disabilities physically and mentally, Nugent brought together six teams from VA hospitals across the country and held the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in 1948. Later that year, Nugent founded the NWBA to give the sport a permanent structure.

That was a busy year for Nugent because while he was putting together the NWBA he also formed the University of Illinois Gizz Kids, the nation’s first collegiate wheelchair basketball team. Today, the NWBA consists of more than 175 teams across the country and in Canada with men, women, collegiate and youth divisions.

Cliff & Nancy Crase

How can an article about prominent people in wheelchair sports in SPORTS ’N SPOKES (S’NS) be complete without including the founders of the magazine? It can’t.

Cliff and Nancy Crase started the groundwork for S’NS in 1973 and published the first issue in 1975 with 704 subscribers (a one-year subscription was $4). However, the magazine’s concept goes back a bit further to Cliff’s days writing about sports for Paralyzed Veterans of America’s PN magazine.

Sustaining a spinal-cord injury in an automobile accident just days before his 21st birthday in 1959, Cliff went on to become a standout wheelchair athlete. He even played basketball for the University of Illinois Gizz Kids founded by fellow “Game Changer” Nugent.

Cliff’s passion for writing about sports easily came through in his column, but there was never enough space to fit in everything he wanted to cover. He was always left with mounds of information. Then, one night at dinner, the young married couple was reading a wheelchair sports magazine called Wheelchair Competition and thought they could do better.
Drawing on Cliff’s writing skill and Nancy’s printing background, the first issue of S’NS was produced on an electric typewriter, pasted up on their dining room table, bundled in the living room and driven to the post office.

The couple initially thought their publishing experiment would last one year and then they would decide if it would continue. That was 40 years ago, and today S’NS is the nation’s premier magazine for wheelchair sports and recreation with roughly 15,000 readers every issue.

Ben Lipton

Some of the people in this article made their mark in wheelchair sports from the most unlikeliest of places. That’s the case for Ben Lipton, who helped create Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports, USA while working at a watch company.

Lipton was executive director of New York’s Bulova School of Watchmaking in the 1950s. The school was founded to provide training for disabled World War II veterans and Lipton had been a counselor at a veterans’ hospital during the war.

Having seen wheelchair basketball while working at the veterans’ hospital, Lipton knew vets were interested in playing sports. He searched for more opportunities for them to become involved, but found limited offerings beyond basketball.

Lipton started creating more sports opportunities for veterans at the school and in 1956 founded the National Wheelchair Athletic Association (NWAA). Thanks to Lipton’s efforts, most of NWAA’s early financial support came from Bulova.

NWAA programs appealed to even greater numbers of athletes with disabilities because of the incorporation of women and athletes with quadriplegia. The organization’s early focus was on national championships and fielding USA teams for international competition, including the then newly-started Stoke Mandeville Games.

Lipton served as chairman for the group’s first 25 years. The NWAA changed its name in 1994 to Wheelchair Sports, USA, and again in 2009 to Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports, USA to better reflect the organization’s mission and goals.

Today, Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports, USA is an official organization of U.S. Paralympics and among its many programs hosts the annual National Junior Disability Championships, which is the longest running competition for athletes with disabilities in the United States.

Marilyn Hamilton

In a backyard garage with the help of two engineers, Marilyn Hamilton revolutionized wheelchair sports by manufacturing the first Quickie wheelchair.

When Hamilton was injured in a hang gliding accident in 1978 all that was available for her mobility was a 60-pound wheelchair. As a wheelchair athlete, she found the chair to be cumbersome, hard to manipulate and difficult to perform in. The two-time Paralympic silver medal skier, six-time national ski champ and two-time U.S. Open wheelchair tennis champion set out to find a way to make a lightweight wheelchair more suitable for sports.

With the help of her hang gliding friend Jim Okamoto, along with Don Helman, they used the same materials that made up their hang gliding gear to build the Quickie — the first ultra-lightweight wheelchair. Its lightweight, adjustable, collapsible and maneuverable frame created opportunity for thousands of wheelchair athletes and others hoping to take up wheelchair sports as well.

With this one product, Hamilton wiped the clunky hospital wheelchair out of the picture and created a new standard for wheelchair sports and mobility. The chair was not only a great solution for sports, but for ease of use in travel and everyday life, too.

The Founders of Quad Rugby

Although not just one person, these five wheelchair basketball players in Winnipeg, Manitoba, changed the world of adaptive sports when they came up with wheelchair rugby.

In 1977, Jerry Terwin, Duncan Campbell, Randy Dueck, Paul LeJeune and Chris Sargent realized there weren’t many sports for people with tetraplegia (quadriplegia) and wanted to change that. They created a sport that welcomes athletes with a wide range of functionality and mobility: Murderball.

Now called wheelchair or quad rugby, the game got its original name from its aggressive nature. The full-contact sport combines elements from rugby, hockey, basketball and volleyball and is open to anyone with paralysis in at least three limbs.

After the men’s success with the sport in Canada, wheelchair rugby spread to the U.S. and Great Britain in the 1980s, which led to the first international tournament in Toronto in 1989. As it grew, it took off from being an exhibition sport in the International Stoke Mandeville Games to a demonstration sport in the Paralympic Games and now receives full medal status at the Paralympics. Today, 23 countries are active in wheelchair rugby.

Jean Driscoll

Despite success across more than just one wheelchair sport at the University of Illinois, Jean Driscoll burst onto the wheelchair marathon scene, giving it a place in wheelchair sports. Driscoll put a face to the sport and gave other wheelchair athletes proof that they, too, could enjoy and excel in marathon racing.

The female athlete born with spina bifida got her start in 1989 at the Chicago Marathon where she qualified for the Boston Marathon. Boston was where success greeted her at the finish line time and time again. Driscoll was the first person to win the Boston Marathon eight times, an achievement only one other has reached, and she broke the world record five times.  

The standout athlete has since retired from her athletic days, but not without leaving her mark first. Outside of her road-racing career, she snatched 12 medals in four Paralympic Games and two medals in exhibition events at two Olympic Games.

Aaron Fotheringham

He’s the new generation of wheelchair athlete. The 23-year-old Las Vegas native changed the way people think of athletes, taking the moniker to the extreme.

Known as “Wheelz” throughout the motocross circuit, at 14 he was the first wheelchair athlete to perform a backflip and turned into a YouTube sensation with the video. Four years later, he became the first wheelchair athlete to perform a double backflip in a wheelchair. In 2011, he landed his first front flip in New Zealand and in 2012 he successfully landed a 50-foot jump off a mega ramp in his chair. He’s also won freestyle motocross competitions, including the 2005 Vegas AmJam BMX finals.

He uses a custom-made wheelchair, which features a four-wheel suspension. But all his accolades haven’t come without a few hundred falls first, including some that resulted in broken teeth.

Born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord, Fotheringham has no use of his legs. One of six adopted children, he became interested in the sport by watching one of his brothers do BMX tricks. Soon after, he was hooked.

Fotheringham changed how a generation looks at wheelchair athletes and helped turned wheelchair motocross into a burgeoning sport. His motto, from Instagram: “When life gives you a wheelchair, find a skatepark.”

Brad Parks

Known as the pioneer of wheelchair tennis, Brad Parks turned it from a recreational therapy experiment to a full-blown major sport. Injured during a 1976 freestyle skiing competition at 18 years old, the casual tennis player made it his mission to keep the sport going for the disabled.

After trying it out as therapy, he, Jeff Minnenbaker and other athletes with disabilities started expanding the sport and playing in wheelchair tennis exhibitions throughout the U.S. A year later, they held the first wheelchair tennis tournament in May of 1977 with around 20 players competing at the Los Angeles City Parks and Recreation Department.

In 1980, Parks teamed up with Dave Kiley, David Saltz and Jim Worth from the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis and established a 10-tournament circuit across the U.S., which included the first international wheelchair tennis event, the US Open, in Irvine, Calif. Parks served as the event’s tournament chairman for 18 years.

In 1988, the International Wheelchair Tennis Foundation was formed and now the sport is practiced in more than 100 countries and includes four Grand Slam events.
In 2010, Parks was the first wheelchair player inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Just think, all this because he decided to see if playing tennis could be therapeutic after his injury.  

Bob Hall

Wheelchair marathon racers wouldn’t have gotten their start without Bob Hall. He made good on his word and in 1975 he became the first Boston Marathon competitor in a wheelchair to record an official time.

When Hall asked if he could join the Boston Marathon, Race Director Will Cloney said he’d give him an official Boston Athletic Association finishers’ certificate if he completed the course in less than three hours. Hall vowed he would.

The 24-year-old Belmont, Mass., native completed the race in 2 hours, 58 minutes, received his certificate and helped the Boston Marathon become the world’s first major marathon to incorporate a wheelchair division. Two years later, Hall destroyed that record, finishing in 2:40.10 and continued to pave the way for wheelchair marathon racers.


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