116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WELLMAN — For most of their lives, local athletes like Jayden Stafford and AJ Fitzpatrick have gotten used to the staring. But now, most folks stare at them for a different reason than they used to.
This week, the Grizzlies — a group of 11 athletes who form the only varsity wheelchair basketball team in Iowa — will represent the Hawkeye State on the national level at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championship. The varsity tournament began Friday.
The basketball court, where all eyes are on them, is one of the few places in the world where they feel normal — not just different or unique. Though many athletes with disabilities get into adaptive sports to feel the type of acceptance their peers have a more accessible entry to, wheelchair basketball is more than the chance to dribble, pass the ball and making exciting half court shots as the buzzer sounds.
For many, it’s been an opportunity to envision a future for themselves that they couldn’t see before.
“These are important and can change kids’ trajectories. I can see kids, even myself, who weren’t college bound (before basketball),” said Grizzlies coach Derrick Bisnett. “It changes what they can do with their life.”
For Fitzpatrick, wheelchair basketball has not only given him a vision, but also a means to pay for college. The Cedar Rapids senior at Prairie High School, 17, plans to play for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater soon, where he’ll be part of a highly rated team program for producing athletes for the U.S. Paralympics team.
“When I was little, I never thought I was going to be able to do anything able-bodied people would do,” Fitzpatrick said. “This gave me more confidence in who I am because I could prove myself to others.”
After being in and out of hospitals for 18 surgeries early in his life, Wellman athlete Jayden Stafford resigned to not being able to do activities many of his peers enjoyed at school, like marching band. At age 7, basketball changed that. Now 15, he also runs track with adaptive equipment, thanks to Adaptive Sports Iowa.
Diagnosed with spina bifida in utero, Jayden’s parents were advised to plan for the worst. Before he was born, funeral arrangements were ready — his family was unsure that he would survive his first surgeries immediately after birth.
“We were given the worst case scenario,” said Shelley Stafford, Jayden’s mother.
With one opportunity, Jayden has not just exceeded expectations — he’s found the ability to set them higher for himself.
“Adaptive sports are a life changer for these kids,” said Dixie Conrad, Stafford’s grandmother. “He’s focusing on grades, he wants to play at the next level, he wants to go to college.”
As the only competitive varsity wheelchair basketball team in the state, some of the 11 players on the team drive two to three hours each way to get to practice every week. After the state’s only team transitioned from being supported by the now disbanded Sportability of Iowa to the Ames-based Adaptive Sports Iowa, visibility and awareness remain some the biggest barriers to the sport’s growth in Iowa.
Adaptive Sports Iowa, which has been working to expand eastward, provides all sports equipment and programming for free so that athletes can focus on performing their best. With about a dozen programs for youth and adults running the gamut from beep baseball for the visually impaired to sled hockey, wheelchair basketball is their primary foray into Eastern Iowa.
Their largest program, with about 80 riders, is the RAGBRAI team. The farthest reaching sport is track and field.
“One of the most difficult parts of my job is to find new participants,” said Hannah Lundeen, director of the organization. “There’s not an easy way to find them — you just find a random person in a wheelchair at the farmers market and say, ‘Hey, have you heard of us?’”
Bisnett, who has spina bifida — a very common condition in wheelchair basketball athletes — said that kind of interaction was how he was introduced to the sport in North Dakota. As a teen, he traveled 16 hours round trip every weekend to Minneapolis, where the nearest team was.
“For more rural kids from places where they’re the only disabled person, you can see other people with the same struggles and challenges,” said Bisnett, 29. “It allows you to come together.”
Even for those not athletically inclined, that opportunity is as valuable as any potential scholarship. Seeing older folks in wheelchairs who were unashamed of their daily medical necessities showed a young Jayden that he didn’t have to be ashamed of his own routines, either.
Now as a dentist working at the University of Iowa, Bisnett approaches the children he sees in wheelchairs in hallways to spread the word, giving kids who may be the only ones in wheelchairs at their rural schools the chance to network with the peers with similar experiences. Lundeen said one of Iowa’s biggest challenges in accessibility is its rural nature and being able to transport athletes to central parts of the state to participate.
“It’s getting people to understand that it’s not about trying to make the next (famous) athlete. It’s getting these kids to network,” said Dana Stafford, Jayden’s father. “Their life and their reality is different from ours. The only way they can network with peers is through things like this.”
“Iowa doesn’t see it as a big event,” Jayden said. “More people should definitely know.”
For those who play on two wheels instead of two legs, the rules of basketball aren’t much different. But anyone who’s played can attest to how much more difficult it can be.
The biggest differences are the speed and physicality of it, with seatbelt-equipped wheelchairs running into each other or stopping on a dime from 10 mph.
“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can look like bumper cars out there,” Bisnett said. “It can look disorganized.”
The only rule differences are no double dribbles, and you get two chair pushes before you have to dribble. But at the highest level of the game, the ball is never sitting in your lap, the coach said.
One of the first rites of passage for new players is getting acquainted with dozens of blisters on the hands before they eventually callous over.
This week, the Grizzlies are excited to meet their Paralympic idols in Wichita, Kansas, and show the country what they’re made of.
“I want to show people Iowa can do something,” Fitzpatrick said.
Tears of joy at his first tournament win, while not exclusive to adaptive sports athletes, were a sign of the work wheelchair basketball players like him have had to put in to accomplish something. In a sport that’s breathed new life into their confidence off the court, they don’t take their shots for granted.
The Grizzlies currently rank eighth in the country. Fitzpatrick said they have a shot of getting to fifth this year. But the bigger trajectory, he said, will be reflected in his growth off the court.
“This sport makes me determined to be a better person,” he said.
Comments: (319) 398-8340; firstname.lastname@example.org