You’ve seen it a million times. A television commercial begins with a montage of action shots; a bunch of guys are engaged in some serious sweat-producing competition. Then, a quick cut to the same fellas relaxing over beers in a local hangout. A toast of some sort is usually involved. Like I said, you’ve seen it a million times.
But this one’s different enough to capture your full attention.
What’s being played is wheelchair basketball… and it’s not an overly polite game. The level of skill and energy involved is impressive. But the real attention-grabber is when all of the participants surprisingly rise from their wheelchairs at the end of the game and walk off the court. Except for one guy—the only member of this group of friends that is actually disabled.
It takes a second to register what’s going on, but when it does, a lot of messages come streaming at you. One of them is that friends are friends and games are games, and logistical details aren’t really the point. These guys aren’t doing this because they feel badly for their disabled friend. They’re doing it because they want the whole gang to enjoy playing a game together. And if that requires everybody getting into a wheelchair, well…mission accomplished. Why wouldn’t they?
All of which leads me to an admittedly over-simplified observation about adaptive sports, which is that logistics aren’t really the point. The sports are. I’m betting that if you ask an adaptive sport athlete why they play, the answers you’ll get back will be pretty much the same that you’d get from an able-bodied athlete:
“Because it’s fun.”
“Because I can be part of a team or other group of athletes.”
“Because I can challenge myself to improve at something.”
“Because I can be in a beer commercial.”
OK, maybe that last one’s a stretch.
What you most definitely won’t hear is, “Because people will see me playing and feel sorry for me.”
The adaptive versions of sports are—like all sports have been since time immemorial—all about pride, and not a bit about pity. Any necessary rules modifications, any customized equipment needed…that’s just logistics. That said, however, those logistics can prove to be challenging. For those that manage them well, a tip of the cap is richly deserved.
Which brings me to the Angel City Games.
Under normal circumstances, you’d expect to find a pretty quiet UCLA on a Saturday morning in June. But despite graduation and the corresponding student exodus having occurred several weeks prior, I discovered the campus to be alive with activity.
This didn’t necessarily surprise me, for I’d come to Westwood to see the inaugural Angel City Games, a track and field meet slash sports festival for physically disabled athletes. I hadn’t expected, however, that my route from the parking garage to the Games’ site inside Drake Stadium would take me past a phalanx of pop-up tents, all set up to welcome a multitude of groups to a variety of UCLA summer sports camps. The “sleepy” campus was more like a small city of young athletes and their families.
The thing that quite pleasantly caught me off balance though, was how seamlessly interspersed was the excited chatter of both able-bodied and disabled athletes as they made their way to their respective events. It occurred to me that if I were to simply stop and close my eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate between the two populations. And I was reminded of how many times I’d heard it said that the fondest desire of anyone who is disabled is to have others think of them as just another person. The walk across campus underscored for me that those that had come to take part in the Angel City Games were there for a track meet—not a support group meeting.
When I got to the Drake Stadium gate, I stopped—as I often do when attending an event for the first time—to get a feel for the bar that the event organizers had set for themselves. To borrow from real estate lingo, every sports event has a measure of “curb appeal” that sends an initial message about what awaits inside. And when I saw a colorful banner festooned with the names and logos of the Games’ sponsors, I knew at a glance that this was a professional production. That many businesses wouldn’t attach their name to anything presented haphazardly, no matter how charitable the intention.
Little did I know at the time that this remarkably well-produced event, which had started as a germ of an idea two years prior, had been in the actual works for just seven months. Or that it began with an innocent question posed while sitting on a track in Oklahoma. Then again, I’d yet to have been exposed to Team Ezra.