Despite the long, difficult, and winding path he has taken to this point, Jerome Montgomery Jr. feels a sense of destiny as a student-athlete at the University of Michigan (U-M).
Twenty years ago, Montgomery played varsity basketball in high school. He had drawn the attention of college recruiters and hoped to play at the collegiate level. Those dreams were put on hold, however, when he sustained a gunshot wound that severely injured his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed for 18 months and resulting in long-term mobility challenges.
“The very next morning [after my injury], I was scheduled to practice in front of some college recruiters,” he says. “Instead, I was in the hospital getting a bullet removed from my back.”
Montgomery regained most of his mobility through a physical rehabilitation program. During that time, he was reintroduced to sports in the form of wheelchair basketball. Before joining the U-M team in 2021, he played with the Detroit Wheelchair Pistons for eight years.
“When a person first obtains a disability, it can feel like the end of the world. You can’t do all these things you take for granted on a daily basis — whether that’s walking without assistance or just being able to flex your fingers. It can be very daunting,” Montgomery says. “When you’re in that state of mind, and you’re presented with opportunities to get out and still be active, it almost gives you new life. I’m very thankful for [wheelchair basketball] because it helped pull me out of a dark place.”
Montgomery first joined the university’s wheelchair basketball team as a non-student “community member” in 2021 but was later convinced by the team’s head coach, Jessica Wynne, to enroll at U-M and pursue a degree in social work. In the fall semester, at 38 years old, Montgomery began his first year as a student-athlete.
“Here we are 20 years later, and I’m presented with the same form of an opportunity, playing the sport that I love for one of the top schools in the country,” Montgomery says. “It’s really a dream come true.”
Wheelchair basketball is one of many activities in the category of adaptive college sports, or parasports, which offer opportunities to compete and build camaraderie for people with disabilities. Due to their profound impact on athletes like Montgomery, adaptive sports and fitness programs are a vital necessity for any institution that values and promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion, says Chris Kelley, program coordinator for U-M’s Adaptive Sports & Fitness (ASF) program and a former collegiate wheelchair tennis player.
“People with disabilities are really no different than their able-bodied counterparts,” Kelley says. “We have a desire to compete in sports, we want the same opportunities, and we want to be afforded the same resources. It’s crucial for programs like [ASF] to provide those opportunities for students to be able to come here and have that collegiate sports experience.”
Over the past several years, U-M has built a robust, multifaceted ASF program that houses several adaptive college sports teams, community outreach programs, and recreational fitness initiatives. Sports supported by ASF include wheelchair tennis and basketball, adaptive track and field, and para-equestrian. Like their traditional counterparts, the adaptive sport teams travel and compete with other schools throughout the year, but they are generally much more inclusive. For example, wheelchair basketball is open to all genders and people with and without disabilities.
Along with its competitive teams, the ASF program operates the Adaptive Sports & Inclusive Recreation Initiative (ASIRI) and the Rx to Play project. Through ASIRI, ASF works with public schools in Ann Arbor to embed adaptive sports into sixth-grade physical education.
“THERE’S AN UNDERSTANDING THAT NOT EVERYBODY WITH A PHYSICAL DISABILITY NECESSARILY WANTS TO BE A COMPETITIVE ATHLETE AND TRAIN FOR THE PARALYMPICS. SOME PEOPLE JUST WANT ACCESS TO FITNESS.”
Rx to Play connects ASF staff, such as Kelley, to local medical providers and physical therapists to introduce adaptive sports and fitness to patients with physical disabilities as a means to improve mobility. While competitive sports are the critical component of ASF, the program also serves as a space for individuals with disabilities to achieve their fitness goals with a trainer who can personalize regimens based on their specific abilities.
“There’s an understanding that not everybody with a physical disability necessarily wants to be a competitive athlete and train for the Paralympics,” Kelley says. “Some people just want access to fitness.”
With the growing prominence of the Paralympics, it is important that colleges and universities continue to invest in adaptive college sports programs to support individuals with disabilities in sports and fitness to ensure an even distribution of competitive teams throughout higher education, says Kelley. Ultimately, any advocates of parasports, including Kelley and Montgomery, would like to see them become integrated into the NCAA and professional leagues.
“It’s our time. [Adaptive sports are] evolving more and more each day,” Montgomery says. “There are intercollegiate teams, but they’re not as broad as their potential. I definitely see the NCAA catching on and coming up with a program or strategy to be more inclusive for people with disabilities.”●
This article was published in our January/February 2023 issue.