The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the NCAA Office of Inclusion today announced the activation of three adaptive sport programming initiatives within the collegiate sports landscape to be implemented across the Women's Final Four, Drake Relays and ITA Fall National Championships.
The historic efforts come as a result of the USOPC/NCAA Para-College Inclusion Project. The program, a partnership between the USOPC and NCAA Office of Inclusion, launched in Fall 2022 as a collaborative effort to engage schools with adaptive sport while simultaneously increasing Paralympic sport understanding, awareness and connection across the collegiate landscape. The work has been advanced by athletes and sport leaders representing the USOPC Collegiate Advisory Council, USOPC Paralympic Advisory Council, and various NCAA committees supporting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
"The USOPC and NCAA Para-College Inclusion Project is monumental because it marks the first time the two organizations have partnered at this level to celebrate and highlight adaptive sports and the amazing experiences of college athletes with disabilities," said Felicia Martin, senior vice president for inclusion education and community engagement. The NCAA shares student-athlete stories through its many platforms and championships. We look forward to highlighting the wheelchair basketball exhibitions at this year's Women's Final Four fan events and the Division II and III women's basketball championships in Dallas."
The Para-College Inclusion Project resulted in four tactical teams with crafted recommendations related to: wheelchair basketball inclusion, Paralympic track and field pathway development, wheelchair tennis integration and Paralympic sport awareness. Each of the advisements have advanced to the implementation stage and will launch in 2023 as outlined below.
College All-Star Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team
The wheelchair basketball tactical team's feedback related to identifying opportunities to showcase the sport at marquee able-bodied events. As a result, the USOPC, NCAA and National Wheelchair Basketball Association will partner to create a significant operation during the upcoming 2023 NCAA Division II and III Women's Basketball Championships to be held April 1 in Dallas, Texas. The event will include the inaugural celebration of the College All-Star Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team, which will be featured during halftime of the Division II and Division III NCAA Women's Basketball Championships. This recognition will include a brief scrimmage against Team USA athletes as well as in-venue messaging on the sport's pathway from youth through college, and to Team USA. The college all-star team will be comprised of current college athletes from all six of the country's women's collegiate programs. The two teams will also participate in a skills showcase with youth from the local wheelchair basketball club at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas on Saturday, April 1.
College Wheelchair Track and Field Championships
The Para track and field tactical team's recommendation included efforts focused on building the pathway for the sport of Paralympic track and field at the college level. Specifically, developing a mechanism to crown a wheelchair collegiate champion during the 2023 racing season. In doing so, youth athletes will have collegiate accolades as inspiration for athletes with disabilities to get involved in the sport. Collaboration among the USOPC, Drake University, the University of Michigan and the NCAA Office of Inclusion has resulted in the opportunity to crown the first-ever men's and women's Para-college wheelchair national champions at the Drake Relays. Held April 26-29 in Des Moines, Iowa, the 100-meter races will occur during the 2023 Drake Relays where winners will be awarded with the inaugural 2023 Para-College Wheelchair National Champion trophy. The University of Michigan will provide travel and participation resources to all qualified wheelchair athletes who earn a top-three place finish or top-eight time to compete at Drake. Additional promotional materials, including broadcast information, can be found on the Drake Relays website.
"I've had the privilege of representing my school, UNI, and my country, Team USA, at the Drake Relays so I know how powerful this platform can be to showcase elite Para Track and Field performances and to offer an inclusive event experience for the fans," said Jessica Heims, Paralympian and discus world record holder. "The crowning of the first-ever collegiate wheelchair national champion at Drake is the building blocks for great collegiate inclusion of adaptive sport."
Wheelchair Inclusion in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association
The wheelchair tennis tactical team strategized on a variety of ideas to help integrate wheelchair tennis into able-bodied events and governance structures. Advanced by the U.S. Tennis Association and Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), the governing bodies are leading the way to building inclusive events and governance structures around wheelchair tennis. The ITA, the governing body and coaching association of collegiate tennis, will implement a wheelchair collegiate tennis coaches' category within its structure to open a pathway for collegiate wheelchair tennis committees, rules, rankings, awards and more. For the first time, the USTA's National Collegiate Wheelchair Championships will have a presence at the NCAA Division I Championships in Orlando this May. In addition, the ITA will look to add a wheelchair event within the 2023 ITA National Fall Championships, which serves as the final tournament of the season for college singles and doubles players.
The awareness team advocated for creating a centralized, online hub to store educational tools, best practices, and resources for program administrators, coaches and athletes. The team also recommended efforts be made to emphasize the competitiveness of collegiate adaptive sports to align with the Paralympic Movement, which exudes prestige and elite-level sport. This effort will culminate with the launch of a new website, Para-CollegeInclusion.org, inclusive of content provided by colleges, adaptive sport organizations, and the USOPC with the intention to expand over time.
"The Para-College Inclusion Project is a great example of how we can create new pathways for student-athletes with disabilities on our college campuses and further promote inclusivity at our NCAA Women's Final Four championship and events," said Jean Merrill, director of the NCAA Office of Inclusion. "We are thrilled to see the progress in our first year of collaboration with the USOPC as this work shines a spotlight on opportunities, the strength of partnerships and the importance of adaptive sports."
Finally, the USOPC and NCAA created an implementation team which will analyze the impact of the Para-College Inclusion Project in the fall of 2023. Successful initiatives will be examined for prolonged commitment and scalability. The NCAA and USOPC implementation team includes service from:
- Greg Byrne, University of Alabama athletics director, USOPC Collegiate Advisory Council member
- Graham Neff, Clemson University athletics director, USOPC Para-College Inclusion Project member
- Jessica Heims, Paralympian (track & field) and University of Northern Iowa student-athlete
- Simon Detmer, Calvin College student-athlete (track and field)