USOPC/NCAA Para-College Inclusion Project
The USOPC/NCAA Para-College Inclusion Project launched in 2021 to engage schools offering adaptive sport to collectively increase Paralympic sport understanding, awareness and connection across the collegiate landscape. This work evolved into an awareness subcommittee and three sport tactical teams: wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, and Para track and field. Each of these teams identified a need to strengthen the college Para sport infrastructure through shared operations, formal connections and sport cooperation.
Through the work of the wheelchair basketball tactical team, the USOPC, NCAA and National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) partnered to host activities at the 2023 NCAA Divisions II and III Women’s Basketball Championships. This included an inaugural Team USA vs. College All-Stars event during halftime of both championships, which brought the sport to women’s basketball fans from around the nation. The College All-Stars team was comprised of one athlete from each college team selected by their coach. Additionally, during the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship game, video highlights of the Team USA vs. Collegiate All-Star Game aired in-venue. Prior to the all-star game, players from the U.S. women’s national team and all-star team hosted a youth skills camp at Tourney Town, where 50 youth athletes with disabilities took to the court to practice drills and learn more about the sport.
In April 2023, the Para track and field tactical team partnered with Drake University to host an inaugural national collegiate wheelchair 100m championship event, which crowned champions in both the men’s and women’s 100m races. Eight male and eight female student-athletes qualified through participation in regional qualifiers, held at the University of Illinois and the University of Arizona.
“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 member of the Para track and field tactical team. “The crowning of the first-ever collegiate wheelchair national champion at Drake is the building block for great collegiate inclusion of adaptive sport.”
The national championships at Drake featured Tokyo 2020 Paralympians Hannah Dederick, Jenna Fesemyer and Eva Houston. Evan Correll was crowned the men’s national champion while Jenna Fesemyer took the women’s title, with both athletes from the University of Illinois.
The wheelchair tennis tactical team pioneered a wheelchair exhibition match during the 2023 NCAA Divisions I, II and III Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships at the U.S. Tennis Association’s landmark facility in Orlando, Florida. On May 20, 2023, wheelchair tennis teams from Alabama and Auburn squared off against one another at the inaugural event, which saw three games – one doubles match and two singles matches. Thomas Venos and Nathan Hunter of Alabama claimed the doubles match over Auburn’s Gabe Puthoff and Jake Eastwood for an early 1-0 series lead. Then, the pairs split up for their two singles matches. Venos then secured Alabama’s overall win with a singles-match victory over Puthoff.
Additionally, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, which serves as the governing body and coaching association of collegiate tennis, has implemented a wheelchair collegiate tennis coaches’ category within its structure to open a pathway for wheelchair tennis committees, rules, rankings, awards and more.
"The ITA takes great pride in its strong coach governance structure, meticulously developed over the past few years," said David Mullins, Chief Operating Officer at the ITA. "The ITA operating committees, comprising elected coaches serving three-year terms, play a pivotal role in steering the continuous enhancements that elevate the standard of college tennis. Anticipating the forthcoming election for the ITA Collegiate Wheelchair Operating Committee later this year, we are enthusiastic about the prospect of crucial decisions that will significantly contribute to bolstering the infrastructure for collegiate wheelchair tennis."
Through its awareness subcommittee, the Para-College Inclusion Project created a centralized, online hub to store educational tools, best practices, and resources for program administrators, coaches and athletes. View that website here.