Building Benefits

The University of Alabama officially opens athletics center

By John Wilkinson

The University of Alabama’s Adapted Athletics program has won nine national titles — five in women’s wheelchair basketball, three in wheelchair tennis and one in men’s wheelchair basketball — but on any given day, those athletes could find themselves waiting to share training equipment with the rest of the student population.

“We lift in the university recreation center and, really, it’s hit or miss with how busy it is,” says men’s wheelchair basketball player Michael Auprince. “Quite often, we’re waiting a little bit for equipment, but we make do with it where we can.”

The Crimson Tide have made it work to the tune of those nine titles, but now the program is going a step further. This month, the university officially opens Stran-Hardin Arena — a brand new, two-story facility specifically dedicated to wheelchair athletics and the needs of the adapted athletics department.

“What this does is it takes us that much closer to what the able-bodied varsity athletes are getting on campus, which is their own training facility, their own strength and conditioning coach, their own locker rooms,” says Alabama Adapted Athletics Associate Director Margaret Stran, PhD. “So yeah, because you’re not fighting, not that we’re fighting, but you’re not in the weight room with a bunch of other people waiting your turn to lift. You’re in your own weight room that has equipment designed with your needs in mind, and so you’re just able to be more successful.”

First Of Its Kind

The 27,036-square-foot facility is the first of its kind and will not only be a competition venue, but it will house locker rooms, training facilities and strength and conditioning space, as well as team meeting rooms, coaches’ offices and study halls, all tailored specifically to the needs of student-athletes with disabilities.

“In the bigger picture, what I’m really excited about is what it does for our sport and what it does for the college programs across the nation as teams start popping up and other teams start expanding. It will make schools start to keep up with us to keep at the elite level,” says men’s wheelchair basketball coach Ford Burttram. “So, I’m really excited about that and just that it says that the University of Alabama acknowledges our sport and appreciates what we do and is very excited to be a part of what we’re taking a part in with adapted athletics.”

The facility is the next step in the evolution of the program that Stran and her husband, Brent Hardin, PhD, the Adapted Athletics director, founded in 2003.

“Number one, it’s something that we really needed,” Hardin says. “We have great facilities here at the university now, but there’s a lot of things that we were missing that were comparable to the stand-up athletes on campus like locker rooms, study hall areas, athletic training area and an arena where we can play our games. It’s huge in terms of our next step, and I like it that you put it that way, because that’s the way we look at it, too. It’s not a destination. We haven’t arrived. This is just the next step for us on our mission.”

That mission, Hardin says, is to give athletes the same proportionate experiences as any other athlete on campus. And he thinks it changes people’s expectations for what they think of when they think of an athlete with a disability, a wheelchair sports program or collegiate wheelchair sports.

Within the facility, every detail has been thought out to maximize both performance and accessibility. Once inside, there aren’t any ledges or doors for athletes in chairs to manage. Also, instead of storing competition chairs in a cage or shed at the recreation center, athletes will have lockers and adjustable storage hooks. Athletes will also have accessible showers with padded chairs and controls placed in the right spots. 

There’s a mezzanine level overlooking the competition court, but instead of waiting for an elevator, there’s a winding wheelchair ramp up to it. Stran even made sure the line of sight was perfect up there by using her own wheelchair for measurements.

“It’s just going to be so seamlessly accessible but at the same time with an emphasis on high performance. All the equipment is specially designed for athletes with ambulatory disabilities. Even the bleachers are going to have special pullouts for guests if they come and they have somebody who is in a wheelchair and they can sit along with them, so everybody in chairs doesn’t have to sit in one area down at the end of a court,” Hardin says. “A lot of little things like that, we’ve tried to put a lot of thought into making it, one, really obvious that this is a high-performance competition center. It’s not a recreation center, it’s not a disability center, it’s a competition center. But also make it where it’s just seamlessly accessible, where you don’t even have to think about it.”

Committing To The Project

The idea began moving forward three or four years ago, Stran says. In a meeting with the athletes’ leadership council, they asked where the program needed to go in the next five years. A student-athlete pointed out that they obviously needed their own facility. Stran called it something they knew they needed but had always just lived without. So they got to work, and they received the money and the commitment from the university in December 2016. 

Auprince, a former Paralympic swimmer from Australia, heard about the plan for the facility before he came over to the U.S. Now that he will get a chance to play in it, he expects it will help recruit others from far and wide.

“On my recruitment trip, they were talking about this. It wasn’t in the pipelines as of yet, they were just sort of working out the kinks and trying to get the funding proposal together. So to see it come to fruition is unbelievable,” Auprince says. “It’s definitely going to bring people in from overseas and within the U.S., all the kids who want to come to college and play wheelchair basketball, which there are a fair number of, this is sort of an incentive, hey, you’re going to play in your own dedicated arena, which, it’s like unheard of in the U.S. collegiate wheelchair basketball system.”

The $10 million project was financed half by the university and half through donors. The two largest donors, Mike and Kathy Mouron, who gave a total of $4 million, are the ones who put Stran’s and Hardin’s names on the building in a surprise gesture.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming,” Stran says. “This is not something that we asked for. People are like ‘Oh, it’s really deserved,’ but there’s a lot of people in this world who have done a lot of things that are more deserving of more recognition than what we’ve done. But we’re really just happy to be in the right place at the right time, and Mike and Kathy are so generous and so giving that it was their choice to do it. It’s going to be weird to go into the building where I work every day and it has my name on it, but I guess in a way that’s good because it will keep the pressure on to, like, keep striving and not get complacent.”

Being driven to succeed is easy for the Adapted Athletics program on a campus like Alabama’s, where sporting success is so ingrained in the culture.

“I think it unquestionably makes it easier, because we’re really lucky, the administration on campus has always supported us,” Hardin says. “Being excellent is really important to them, and the community and the student body, they expect all the sports teams here to do well. We want them to expect the same thing of us, and that’s what we expect of ourselves … we’re in a subculture here that really loves sports and loves watching sports and loves watching Alabama do well, and we just feel really lucky to be here, honestly.”

Burttram also has seen the full evolution of the Alabama Adapted Athletics program during his time in Tuscaloosa. He arrived in 2006 and was the captain of the Crimson Tide’s first men’s wheelchair basketball team before going on to become a coach in the 2009-10 season. He is now in his fourth year as head coach as the program prepares to take its most drastic step forward.

“It’s very humbling to think that this big university with all the sports that go on here — you know, title town, you’ve got to win a title to be recognized in this town, it seems like — that the university has enough faith in us and our program and what we’ve accomplished to invest in us in such a big way,” Burttram says. 

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