2 bicyclists on country road

Recreation, Sport & Tourism

Sapora Symposium: Social Justice / Disability

On November 4th, Adam Bleakney and Tatyana McFadden discussed the history, and future, of sports for people with disabilities.

Click here to see the full transcript.

BRENDAN ROSS: Hello, and good evening to all in attendance tonight, as well as viewing this recorded session later on in the week. This is the second session of the 2020 Sapora Symposium, hosted by the Recreation Sport and Tourism Department at the University of Illinois. My name is Brendan Ross, and I'm a senior in the RSD program.

This is the fourth Sapora Symposium that I've been lucky enough to be a part of. And I'm really excited to be able to have this opportunity to kick off tonight's event. I've been extremely impressed with our department and our students' ability to seamlessly transition this event into a virtual event. And I am sure that we will all leave these sessions with great takeaways and insight.

With the awesome opportunity to speak prior to a panel of Paralympic legends in Mr. Adam Bleakney and Ms. Tatyana McFadden, it has allowed me to reflect on my own experiences here at the University of Illinois. To begin, the diversity and inclusion that I have witnessed on this campus have been such a huge factor in my undergraduate experience, particularly in studying sport.

We are so lucky to have such high level and decorated para-athletes, alumni, coaches, and many others supporting our program here. To give a frame of reference, at the 2016 Para Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, of the 72 athletes that competed in the track and field portion for the United States, 12 of them trained at the University of Illinois, including our panel tonight of Tatyana McFadden and her coach Adam Bleakney.

For anyone who has ever stepped foot in the dress training facility over on Oak Street, you know just how legit that U of I is in this field. Having knowledge on these sports has provided myself awesome value and an even deeper Illini pride, specifically with our own RSD department's connection to the program. I will now hand it off to Dr. Michael Raycraft who will introduce our panel and get this event going. Thanks again for being here tonight and go Illini.

DR. MICHAEL RAYCRAFT: Thank you very much, Brendan. That's an excellent job. On behalf of our faculty, I'd like to welcome each of you tonight to the second session of our 18th Annual Symposium as we continue to celebrate industries and individuals who are leaders in promoting social justice, as [INAUDIBLE] to impact economic development, inclusion, and cultural cohesion.

Our topic tonight will take a different turn. As Brendan mentioned, we're going to focus on sport and disability. To introduce our lead moderator tonight, Aimee Gottlieb. Aimee is a two time graduate of the Department of Recreation Sport and Tourism. I was fortunate enough to be her advisor through her Master's degree. She has extensive background in adaptive sports, serving as a manager while she was an undergraduate for the US Paralympic team.

Currently, she works as a-- I'm going to get this right-- as a veteran program and event coordinator with Chicago Park District. I'm pleased to welcome Aimee back to RSD tonight. To you. Great to see you, Aimee.

AIMEE GOTTLIEB: I remember participating in the Sapora Symposium as a student, and I'm honored to partake tonight as a moderator for the panel. Just wanted to share a little bit about myself. Dr. Raycraft did a great job with that introduction.

But I really enjoyed my time at the University of Illinois. I was there for six years getting my Bachelor's and Master's degree in the department. I also co-founded the RSO Play for Change in my time there about how to use the power of sport and recreation and tourism to be a catalyst for change with Dr. Welty Peachey.

During my time there, my last two years of undergrad, I was also the manager of the men's and women's wheelchair basketball program, traveling all over the country with the teams as they competed for a national title. And then through that experience, I got connected with the wheelchair track program. They trained in the same facility.

And so it was just an honor to get to know those athletes as well. And I ended up securing a graduate assistantship, and getting the great opportunity to work with Coach Adam Bleakney, and the amazing athletes, including Tatyana McFadden for two years there as they were finishing a Paralympic cycle. After graduation, I went to work for the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab for 3 and 1/2 years as an adaptive sports coordinator, really continuing to grow in that field of adaptive sports.

And I've been with the Chicago Park District for about a year now doing programming and events for veterans, including adaptive sports for veterans with physical disabilities. So I really love the adaptive sports space. And I could not be more honored to introduce tonight's panel, starting with Tatyana McFadden, one of the most decorated athletes, Olympian or Paralympian of all times.

I had the pleasure of working with her during my, a little bit during my undergraduate and graduate career. So I will turn it over to Tatyana so she can tell you a little bit about her amazing achievements and accomplishments.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Hello. Good evening, everyone. Thank you, Aimee for the wonderful introduction. So a little bit about myself and how I got to where I am today, I did have a difficult childhood growing up. I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia with spina bifida. So that's where you have a hole in your back and your spinal column is sticking out. And usually, you need surgery immediately after birth.

But for me, that wasn't the case. I was in a hospital with my back open for 21 days. And after my procedure, I was moved to orphanage Number 13 because my birth mom couldn't take care of me. And I-- the orphanages are all numbered. They're not labeled in any specific name.

So I got lucky 13. And for the first six years of my life, I didn't have a wheelchair. I didn't have any medical treatment. I didn't have any schooling and so how I got around the orphanage was just using my arms. I scooted on the ground. I walked on my hands.

I knew that that was the only way for me to get around. And the six year changed when my mom happened to walk through the door. She was just on a work trip. She wasn't really looking to adopt at that time. And when we met, I felt like it was fate that brought us together. Before I knew it, I was on the plane to the US and a lot of first things happened.

Going to school for the first time, I had several surgeries because my legs were atrophied behind my back. And so in order to sit in a wheelchair, or even lay on the bed, I needed my legs to be straightened out. And the biggest highlight was getting involved with a local para sports club in Baltimore.

The doctors told my parents I wouldn't live a successful life and they didn't see me going to college. They didn't see me doing all these things. And my parents really thought otherwise. So that's why they put me in that sports program called the Baltimore Bennett Blazers in Baltimore, Maryland.

And I tried everything. I tried ice hockey, downhill skiing, wheelchair basketball. And finally, wheelchair racing and I loved it. I just-- I took to it. It was something about that sport. And I don't know if it was the need for speed at the age of seven, but I knew that I wanted to get better it it. I knew that I wanted to take the chair home and train it in every single day.

But what I really noticed about being part of that sports program was that I was getting healthy, and mentally healthy, as well as physically healthy. And it was the first time that I was able to dream at the age of seven. So when you ask kids what they want to be, they have an idea. But for me, coming to the US, I didn't know that was even a possibility to become something that you really wanted.

And this program allowed me to do that. And I just really liked athletics and I wanted to be an athlete. And I knew that at a really young age. So I was part of the sports program. And for since elementary, middle school, and high school. And in 2004, when I found out that the-- I was finishing up eighth grade, and when I found out that the games were going to be in Athens, I was so excited and I went to my parents and said the Olympics are going to be in Athens.

And I really want to go. And I say the Olympics during that time because I didn't know about the Paralympics. I didn't even know they even existed. I just thought it was a games, the Olympics was just for everybody to go to. And so we found out where trials were going to be at that time. And I was 14 and a half, 15. So I was really quite young to make the team.

I think a lot of people didn't expect for me to make it being so young and being my first really big competition. And I made the team. One of the youngest track athletes to go in 2004. And I won a silver and bronze medal in the 100 and 200. And I think being on that podium, I knew that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to be an athlete.

And what I really wanted for the sport was that when I came back home, Paralympics wasn't celebrated. And for me, I always wondered why. Paralympics should be celebrated, and it should just be like the Olympics.

And so I thought to myself at a young age, well how can we make a voice for this sport? And I thought well, you have to be the best. Right? Like Serena, like Naomi. You have to win everything, and people will listen. You can give a voice for the sport.

So I knew that that was the journey that I wanted to be on at such a young age. But what I didn't realize that when I returned from my first Paralympic games in 2004 with two medals around my neck, I entered into high school with a dream to join the high school track team. But I was not allowed to join the team.

I wasn't given a uniform. I wasn't allowed to work out with the team. I wasn't allowed to compete. And so at the age of 15, with the support of my parents, I sued the county school system for the right to compete alongside the able-bodied athletes in high school sports. We prevailed in the county, and then the state. And now it is federal mandate that requires schools to allow people with disabilities to compete equally in high school sports.

And I really wanted to take on that challenge, because my sister Hannah, she's also a Paralympic athlete, and I thought, well I wanted to be that voice so she could participate equally in high school and not have to go through the battles that I had to go through. High school was really, really tough.

I was constantly bullied every single day because of what I was doing. And but it was the right thing to do. And I think there was a lot of noise made because people didn't understand. They didn't understand disability. They didn't understand what wheelchair racing was.

And so I think that sports just does such an amazing job of normalizing disability, and normalizing acceptance, and building understanding. And so that's why I wanted that law suit to happen. After high school, I wanted to go to the University of Illinois, and that's where I met Adam.

I actually came on as a basketball scholarship for about a year before I switched. And that's where I started marathoning. I-- in 2009, I was nervous. I don't know if you remember that, Adam, when you were trying to convince me to do a marathon after the 2008 games. And I remember thinking that I couldn't make it through a marathon because in 2008, my longest distance was only 800 meters.

And my favorite track event is the 400 meters. So Adam convinced me that a marathon about 400 meters about 100 times or so, and then you had completed the marathon. But I was so happy that I started the marathon journey, because it also gave another really, another voice for the sport, another chance to talk about wheelchair raising, to talk about disability and to help normalize it. And to help build equality within the marathon community.

And I love it. I love the challenges that training for a marathon comes. And just yeah, I love everything about the marathon. And then I went to London, and Rio. And it's just been really an amazing journey so far through sports.

And we've seen just such huge transformation from when I started with in Athens, all the way to now. And I think the social media has had such a great change with that where athletes are getting a platform to talk about sports, talk about equality. And to talk about disability at the same time.

So that's been an amazing, good transformation, as well as media coverage with NBC, and even recently the name change for the US OPC where it's now United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. So that's a little bit about me and my journey. And I'm still training for Tokyo next year.

AIMEE GOTTLIEB: Awesome. Well thank you for sharing that with us, Tat. One thing she did not mention is that she did every event in the last Paralympic Games from the 100 meter to the marathon. So if you think about what it takes to be able to train and compete for each of those events, it's pretty amazing.

And I also wanted to take the time to introduce Adam Bleakney. Coach Adam or Chief, as a lot of the athletes and myself know him. A lot of athletes with disabilities go to University of Illinois to train under Coach Adam Bleakney. I-- part of the reason I stayed at University of Illinois for my Master's degree was to work under Coach Adam Bleakney and to also get to be a part of the Paralympic training site that happened during my time as a graduate assistant.

So I'll turn it over to coach Adam, and he's going to tell you a little bit more about himself. He was also a Paralympic athlete and a coach. So pretty amazing man.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Thanks Aimee. Thanks for the kind words. And thanks to everybody for the opportunity to be with you tonight, and for spending your hour with us. And hanging out with us, and learning a little bit about Paralympic sport and the influence.

The impact it has more broadly, which really is to me, the value point is that it's a vehicle for greater change and opportunities. Such as Tatyana just gave an example of how she used sport as a vehicle for social change, and inclusion integration, and opportunity.

So I've been really fortunate to be a part of the program here at the University of Illinois since 1997. I transferred here as an undergraduate student. And I was a little bit later in life with a spinal cord injury between my freshman and sophomore year of college.

So took few years before I ended up on the campus of Champaign. But finished my undergrad, and grad school. And left a couple years to work and community program that provided wheelchair sports opportunities for typically youth, but some adults in grassroots programs. And then worked there for two years.

And then in 2005, my coach, Marty Morse retired and the job opened. I was very fortunate to be offered the position. And so I've been here since then. So it's been a few years. It was 16th year as the head coach of the wheelchair track program.

And I do have a passion for the impact, and that it has on our student athletes, and just how unique this program is. And the student athletes, and the sport staff, all those that come in contact with the program. Aimee and Tatyana are two shining examples of just that.

And I and I probably just said this 30 seconds ago, but I can't tell you how proud and honored that I am to be a part of the legacy of this program as it is the first collegiate sports program and collegiate program for individuals with a physical disability. So I want to talk just a little bit about that, because I think we're very unique, and as it's been the case, often have been at the leading edges of the movement for access and disability rights.

And many firsts and best practices that we see today that have become so integrated into society that they blend in without much notice. Curb cuts, for example, lifts on buses. Those models and best practices were validated here right in Champaign.

And so moving back to 1947 was when this concept, and idea of providing an educational opportunity for servicemen returning from World War 2 that acquire a spinal cord injury. And this was proposed by the American Legion, and accepted by the president of the [INAUDIBLE] at the time as being a great experiment, something to try.

Now to put this in a little bit of context and understanding what the expectations of for and then the reality of the life of an individual with a spinal cord injury at the time, the outlook was not what it is today. Not what it is today. Very, very dim.

And in fact, prior to the 1940s, even more so than that when roughly 80% of servicemen that acquired spinal cord injury died within weeks and months. And typically, those were caused by infections from bedsores or bladder and kidney infections from catheterization. But with the advent of drugs and penicillin, notably and namely, and then not only did the discovery of that. That was in the late 20s.

But it wasn't until there was easy access and the medical community to provide that to individuals that then you had a change. And for the first time, individual a spinal cord injury were being kept alive. So that goal was met.

But then what prospects did they have? Not many, not many in the '40s. Is interesting to listen to or read about some of the servicemen in hospitals. And really, they were not at all attended. Eventually, there were at that time, in the mid '40s, there were no specialty units for spinal cord injuries. They were positioned in beds in general hospitals.

And then really just left there to with the expectation that they would eventually die. And so no rehabilitation. No therapy. Certainly physically, and certainly nothing in terms of figuring out ways that they could reintegrate into society.

But things change. And there are a variety of reasons why that was the case. Some of which tied to politically, of which were tied politically. But with this understanding of the lifespan of a spinal cord injured individuals who were going to be living longer. And there may be some opportunities for them to be productive members of society.

And as one Congressman said of the time, we wanted to make these boys, at the time, primarily men into good taxpayers, and saw the opportunity to get them back and employed, and pay their fair share of taxes. So we had, for the first time, we had dedicated spinal cord injury units in which these individuals were replaced and a full immersive comprehensive rehabilitation therapy program to provide them what they needed to master activities of daily living.

Getting around in a wheelchair and so on. And so that was part of it. The other part of, too, was the impact of sport, and the understanding that not only could that be a therapy and rehabilitative process, it could also provide them an emotional release, and give them a passion for competition and sport. And show them what physically they were capable of doing. And show others too.

And so as within these veterans hospitals in the mid '40s, 1946, 1947 that wheelchair basketball became formalized. And rules were written up. This was happening about the same time, both on the West coast and the East coast. And actually, they had two different sets of rules.

And when they came together to play, that was often a point of contention was which rules to follow. So within that context, there is a thought of, well the GI Bill is available. Let's educate these service members and put them back into society.

So now we're back at 1948 when the program started over in Galesburg. And along with that was an understanding of using sport as an opportunity to interact and engage, and connect with the broader society. And demonstrate physically what these student athletes were capable of doing.

And so the first national wheelchair basketball tournament was held in 1949 in the spring. And then the organization National Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed, and still exists to this day, and as does national tournament. And that game was a first that came out of Champaign and has provided opportunities for thousands and thousands of women and men to participate in competitive wheelchair basketball.

And so the start though wasn't, it wasn't an easy start here over in Galesburg. We just didn't settle in, and start the smooth sailing. Actually, in that same year in the spring 1949, the Galesburg campus, where the program was hosted, was closed and shut down.

And the governor, this was closed by the governor. And then with no proper aspect of moving this program. There weren't-- there were roughly about 20 students at that time that were enrolled in the program. So as they would, they loaded up in their cars, and they drove to the governor's mansion, Madeline Stevenson's mansion to protest the termination of the program.

And set a tone for future such protests to come in the disability rights movement. Ultimately, they were accepted and transferred into the Champaign Urbana campus and began in the fall of 1949. And of course, we've been here since. We've been here since.

And we started out in a tarp, paper shack just across the street from where our current building is. And from there, worked into a permanent building in the 1960s. And that's where we're still housed. That's where we're still housed.

So once these student athletes were on campus, now we had to create access to classrooms. It was one thing to be accepted and enrolled, but another thing to overcome architectural barriers. And so the director of the program, Tim Nugent wandered around campus and if there was a particular class in which steps were an obstruction for the student, he would build ramps.

And so he'd walk around campus and build a ramp to Lincoln Hall, or whatever the case may be to create those access points. And beyond that, many of the other first, and I alluded to these earlier. But whether it was curb cuts, or fixed bus routes that had accessible lifts on them, which paved the way for such accessible busing throughout the major metropolitan areas, or architectural standards, best practices for housing. Insofar as creating accessible housing, all these became codified state law, and later federal law.

And each of which began here. And were implemented in order to create access and opportunity for our student athletes. I think if we pull this back into sport and why sport was used, it was used as a point of connection for education and understanding for the broader public, and understanding what disability was.

And Tim, Dr. Nugent, well understood that there's no better tool for undermining the stigma associated with disability, which tends to be one of less than, and inferior, and incapable of, and physically deficient. There's no better way to undercut that than to show the physical prowess, aptitude, and ability of these student athletes in wheelchairs.

So let me-- I'll wrap my monologue up here. And just tie back in my sport wheelchair track, which began and was formalized in the late '50s, '56, '57, '58. Here on campus in which we sent student athletes out to compete at the National Wheelchair Games held out in New York at Bulova Watch factory. And at that time, there were no tracks. They raced on paved parking lots.

And before the meet, they'd draw chalk lines, and just as it was. So there were some lanes that had potholes, and manhole covers, and you'd show up the starting line. You'd take a popsicle stick, and it would tell you what lane you were in. And hopefully, you didn't get the lane with the manhole cover in it.

But oftentimes you did. And the reason they used big parking lot all the way up through the '70s, because synthetic tracks weren't as ubiquitous as they are today. And so the mid '70s, once they became so, then we began to have more formalized competitions on a track.

So all right, Aimee. I'm going to hand it back over to you. I have no idea how long I just spoke. But hopefully, I touched on a few points that resonated with the participants, attendees.

AIMEE GOTTLIEB: Yeah. Absolutely, well thanks for sharing that rich history. You mentioned a lot of great things about Dr. Nugent, and U of I being one of the most accessible campuses. So in 2019, U of I was actually rated the number two best campus in the nation for students with disabilities by College Magazine. And you've talked a little bit about the rich history of wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track at U of I.

Can you tell us a bit more about the sport opportunities that have taken place at the University of Illinois, beyond basketball and track? And then a little bit about what opportunities there are for athletes with disabilities around the country to go to college and compete in sport? As well as, possibly getting scholarships to do that as well?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Sure Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So Yeah, I mean, I mentioned track and basketball. But insofar as adapt sport, our students here have done the full gamut, the full gamut. And whether that's archery, or swimming, and we've represented the United States a Paralympic competition, which began in 1960 at Rome.

And in each of those sports, whether it's track field, swimming, archery, basketball, one sport in which we were one of the first locations to offer it as a competitive sport, never a Paralympic sport, is wheelchair football. And really, if you think wheelchair basketball can get rough, wheelchair football, there are no rules. There are no rules.

So throwing people out of the chairs, and rolling over their fingers and when they're down. Just good, good, clean, aggressive fun. And so they used to play that in the armory for years and years. And it's very, very competitive.

So salute all of these sports we're offered. Now, we've narrowed down as sport evolves, and the athletes evolve. And so we've narrowed down into just providing competitive opportunities for wheelchair basketball, men and women, and wheelchair track, men and women.

Our most recent additional sport was quad rugby. And the last we had that was in 1996, I believe, '95. But as it is, over the last 20 plus years, we've really keyed in and focused on those two sports. Trying to think what your other question was.

Scholarships? We do provide athlete merit scholarships for our current crop of student athletes and have done so for the last 25 plus years. We also offer, or we're also, athletes earn a varsity letter. And so that again was, I should note that date, specifically, of when that started occurring. So I'm just going to say the early '90s. My best guest. Sorry, I should know that. But I just can't bring it to mind.

And so this is well deserved, and merited recognition for our student athletes. There are, I think you asked about other college programs across the country. And so yes, there are.

Not as many as we would like there to be, because of-- that is one opportunity for increased participation and access is to provide more collegiate programs with competitive opportunities for wheelchair athletes, whether that's basketball, or track, or more tennis perhaps. But again I don't know the specific number of other colleges.

I know for track, we have just about a half dozen that offer some semblance of a program. And that's varying levels of participation. Our program is the biggest in terms of numbers in the country, and the world.

But as I say, I think looking forward and to I know this is a question you had later in your questions, Aimee, but ways of moving the Paralympic sport and developing. And that is to create these collegiate opportunities.

One of the really wonderful outcomes of Tatyana's lawsuit is that that law has been adopted across the country. And I don't know the number of states now that mandate participation at the high school level by students that have a physical disability. But it's a good number.

And so what we have now is very much a developing and rich depth of participation at the high school level. And then there's a disconnect between high school participation, and then next level participation, which obviously is collegiate, is collegiate. So that's a huge opportunity for us in the next decade.

AIMEE GOTTLIEB: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. When I was a student manager of the wheelchair basketball team, there were five women's programs, and seven men's programs across the country. But that was back in 2014. And I know that number has grown since then. My next question as for Tatyana.

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your Netflix documentary that you helped produce called Rising Phoenix. I know I watched it. I really enjoy it. I was very moved by it. What role did this film have in pushing for equality in sports?

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Yeah. This film was huge. And so four years ago, Greg, who works for IPC, he came up to me after one of my wins in Rio and we just got talking about the history of the Paralympics, and talking about sports, and equality, and disability, and what disability means. What it meant to be in the United States, and what other athletes think of it around the world.

And when we were having this discussion, he said this should be a movie. And I said, absolutely. It's a story that's never been told before.

The whole history of the Paralympics from when it started, all the way up to now. And so it was like this magical thinking that just happened four years ago. And two years later, Greg called me back and he said, hey, we're going to make this happen. Do you want to be part of the team?

And he said with your advocacy, what I've done so far, he said that he wanted me to be part of the team. I said, OK. Out of everybody, you want me to be part of it. And I said, absolutely.

And so my role was talking to the directors. And I met them a few times before they even started filming just to go over the history of the Paralympics, just to go over what disability means, and how we want this film to be portrayed, and how we want people with disabilities to be portrayed. And as well as when we're got into the filming of the documentary, as athletes were telling their stories, I thought it was really important to hire people in their own crafts to help be part of this film.

So actually hiring people with disabilities to be part of the film. I said we can't, we have to stay true to our word. And so they did, and it was the first time in Hollywood and even BAFTA that we've had such a high percentage of people with disabilities working on the film. It was 16%, which is huge.

And so I was just proud to be that voice, and that whole process. And even the directors learned a lot. [? Ellie, ?] the researcher on the film, they were trying to find an accessible building for her to work in in London, and they didn't realize how hard it was.

These directors were, they made the movie McQueen that's also on Netflix, and that's something that they learned. And so it was awesome. And it was amazing.

And I think it was a great timing that this film came out to get people to sit down and watch it. People are hungry for sports, and I think people are hungry for education. And as its people are not as traveling as much, so it's a perfect time to see a film like this to really understand the whole Paralympic movement that's going on right now.

AIMEE GOTTLIEB: Access is something we often don't think about in the forefront of our mind. But that's great that that came to light through employing all these people with disabilities as part of the film crew. So definitely check out Rising Phoenix if you have not seen it yet. My next question is possibly for both of you, but geared a little bit more towards Adam.

How has sport connected Illinois wheelchair athletics to the rest of the University, and beyond? What collaborations have developed to help advance adaptive sport? And what awareness have these projects brought to athletes with disabilities in the community?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So one of the high value points of where we are house, which is within the College of Applied Health Sciences is that we have a great point of connection with a lot of different departments across campus to do collaborative work. And so we do.

So apartments within our college, such as kinesiology, dietetics, and outside of our college. And currently working on a project with mechanical engineering and robotics a research project of aerospace engineering. We've done work with the Gies School of Business. Do a lot of work with industrial design.

A little bit with the College of Medicine too, a newer program. So our tentacles are wide and which I think again, is the real value point of this program and what makes it very unique is this blend of sport with research and academia. And I think what I really enjoy is taking these silos of expertise and bringing them into a single barn, and then sharing that knowledge, and sharing those experiences to create greater access and greater opportunities.

And so outside of the university, we've done some really fun collaborative projects. And Tatyana, I'll let her speak a little bit about her experience with one. And that is a collaboration with BMW, the car maker, which we worked with them in 2016 on a few different projects. But the one that received the most media attention and notoriety was the redesign of a racing wheelchair. Excuse me.

Which was modeled on, if anyone, if you guys are Star Wars fans, it was modeled on an X-Wing TIE fighter, I think. I don't know my Star Wars Empire battleships well enough. But maybe it was an X wing. It was an X wing fighter. Maybe it was. It's a really innovative, and cleverly designed, and full carbon fiber chassis racing chair.

And so the exposure and presence within the media, and the opportunity to connect with some spaces that we wouldn't have otherwise via this project, really, really was significant. Tatyana was one of the featured athletes. And she raced in the BMW frame in real.

And there were just six built. And all six were built for student athletes in our program. And so I don't know. Tatyana, if you want to touch on that real briefly. I'm not sure what else there is to say, other than maybe you can just talk a little bit about your experience.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Yeah. It was really cool. So it was, as Adam said, the first time in history where a sponsor wanted to take on a project to create something so revolutionary. And I was really excited. It was, for us, the first time to be creating this all carbon fiber chair in the US.

It's been done in Japan before. So it was-- yeah-- it was really cool to go through the entire process of the-- they had to come to our university and study wheelchair racing and how we train. The seating position, how we push, how we use our racing gloves with that's rubber attached. And then the rubber on our hand ring.

So they really did a lot of studying to create such a beautiful chair. And another thing that we've had a fun collaboration was with BP in creating the Olympic and training, Olympic and Paralympic Training Center at U of I which is amazing as well to help with that.

So yeah, it's been numerous fun projects that we've come a long the way.

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah. Tatyana, I'm so remiss in not mentioning BP. I was only thinking about research and equipment. Yeah. So our indoor training facility. We are the National Training Center for Wheelchair Track for the USOPC. And the sole training site designation in the country for wheelchair track, which this is recognition of our student athletes' success, and long tradition of success.

And so we have, as part of that, we received a very generous donation from BP, which allowed us to gut half of our basement, and build a state of the art indoor training facility and workshop. And staging area for our student athletes. And so that certainly was a very valuable relationship, which was should mention, that was came as a result of Tatyana, your relationship with BP.

DR. MICHAEL RAYCRAFT: Let me interrupt real quickly. If you guys have questions that you'd like to put on the Q and A panel, I'd be happy to take a look at those and maybe we can get those asked. I also wanted to give Colin from the news who's had an opportunity if he had a question.

COLIN LIKAS: Sure. I appreciate that, Michael. Thank you. Well my question dives a little bit away from some of what you guys have been talking about. I think it was actually probably going to build off some stuff you guys might talk about later. But I'll ask it now since I've been given the floor.

Tatyana, during the era of COVID, obviously, all encompassing, it's affecting everything we do. How has that affected your day to day routine, and everything that you had planned from every standpoint, athletic and otherwise over the last seven, eight months?

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Yeah. It's been tough. It's been a whirlwind time. I actually came to, well, I came to Florida for winter training to get ready for Tokyo specifically, just to give it a shot and see how that transition would be. And I've been in Florida training in the warm weather due to COVID. And yeah, but it's been really tough.

You've had to-- we completely redid our training from, and we extended our winter training more into the spring. Right, Adam? We just extended that entire training block. Just redid everything. And had to be, I had to be really creative in the gyms here for quite a while with everything being shut down.

So I came up with a lot of exercises at home just to be extra safe. And part of training in Florida was I was just outside by myself. So it's been different. It's been weird. I think the hardest thing is, as an athlete we know our schedule a year in advance.

So with when the Paralympics got postponed to next year, we still don't know about the marathons coming up for that year. So that was pretty hard. Just playing that waiting game, and training, and waiting, and seeing what would happen. So that's been really tough mentally.

But I've been just really staying focused on my routine, just getting up and training, and jumping on Zoom calls, doing a lot of fun other projects like Rising Phoenix. Being part of other youth sporting events, some nutrition projects.

So trying to stay busy via Zoom, which has been kind of nice. It's different way and faster way to connect. So that's been really quite fun and interesting. But yeah, I think it's definitely been mentally tough for a lot of people.

But I have a wonderful sport psychologist and she's been amazing in going through just meditations, and just trying to stay focused for next year.

COLIN LIKAS: Thanks, Tatyana. Appreciate it.


DR. MICHAEL RAYCRAFT: I have a question for both of you. In terms of how do you think-- Tatyana, Adam, you guys are really role models for a particular type of athlete. What do you think the impact has been on the profile given to disabled sports, the Paralympic Games, et cetera, in terms of the greater population? How has it move, that made it move the ball forward?

ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah. Well I'll take stab here first, Tatyana. And just say, and I think I understand your question, just how the awareness, education, and acceptance Paralympic sport has changed certainly. So and it has, and as I said, I became involved in wheelchair sport in the mid '90s, 1996, 1995.

And as we've progressed through the 2000, 2010s, without question, without question on a lot of different metrics. We've had been gaining awareness and understanding, and promotion of Paralympic sport, and Paralympic athletes. And so whether that's financial allocation, presence in the media, we've seen growth and development in those areas and in those spaces.

Now that's not to say that we're satisfied with where we are. We acknowledge the progress that's been made, because much has been made. But we also call for increased access, and resources, and equity. Because we're not-- we're not quite there. We're not quite there yet.

And I think, as a case in point, is I often think of the change relationship between the Paralympic athletes and the US Olympic Committee, now the Olympic Paralympic Committee through the decades. And starting in 1980 when first give formal recognition by the USOC, and then a committee was named to represent athletes that had a physical disability.

Through 1984, when they prohibit our use of the term Paralympics, which undercut our efforts to host the first Paralympic Games on US soil, the ability to market and fund raise, then was severely hampered, and ultimately, we were not able to do that. Now they were set to be held, hosted here on the campus of Champaign, Illinois.

But ended up being hosted at Stoke Mandeville where some of the first Paralympic sport competition was hosted. Anyway, so it would be years before '96 games before we actually had a Paralympic Games here. So [INAUDIBLE] we had couple of lawsuits that were largely '90s, early 2000.

We've had this change. And one of them, and I'll wrap it up here. But I think one of the mark changes in our relationship has been just the presence of Paralympians being featured at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. When I first began going out there, in the late '90s, there was very little, to no representation of Paralympic athletes, or the Paralympic athletes were a part of their family.

By the mid 2000s, when we began to see a little bit more exposure. There was a Paralympic banners hung up. Then when they built their new, they moved their headquarters from the Olympic Training Center to downtown Colorado Springs. And when that building was built, they put in murals, floor to ceiling murals of Paralympics, as many as those were Olympic.

So there, again, was an idea that this philosophical position toward their Paralympic athletes was changing. And then to more recently, to change the name, and include Paralympics and the name of the company, name the organization.

And then two, and I'm still a little-- I'd say my jaw dropped when I was told this information that we were getting a one to one medal payout. So Olympic gold medal, the Paralympic gold medal, the payout is the same. And I think it's $25,000. Tatyana may know that number precisely. But I believe $25,000.

And so here's where you have equality and resource allocation. And to me, that's a real sign of a changed philosophy and understanding, and value of the Paralympic athlete. OK, Tatyana.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: Yeah. That name change was definitely huge, as Adam was saying, with the equal pay. I didn't know if I was going to see it in my career. I would maybe thought I would see it around LA '28, having the games in the US. So I was really, really happy to see that. And I'm so thankful for the Paralympic athletes before me who have actually fought for the right to make this amount of progress.

So it's taken a group of us to make that movement happen. And I've just seen such big changes in media, and in sponsorships, and in attitude as well. I think as generations progress, it's a little bit easier to educate the younger ones. And I think that they're a little bit more accepting as well.

But it's the changes happening. That momentum is going, which is really, really nice. Like Adam said, we still have a long way to go. But we've made a lot of movement that I was worried that I wouldn't see in my career.

So it's exciting to see what the future holds. But we still have a lot more work to do and definitely to help to create the growth of this sport more in the Paralympics. And I think that the educational piece is really, really quite important. And again, the social media outlets as well.

DR. MICHAEL RAYCRAFT: Awesome. Well I think this would be probably-- those are great words to wrap up this conversation. We appreciate, Aimee, it's always a pleasure seeing you. Welcome back. Thank you for agreeing to come to panel. Coach Bleakney and Tatyana, certainly a pleasure meeting and hearing from you.

We certainly appreciate your time tonight. It's been a very insightful conversation. And I think it's going to really contribute to an overall dialogue that we're doing for the next six weeks on social justice. And so you guys have really added some new insight.

So thank you very much for your time tonight.


ADAM BLEAKNEY: Yeah. Thanks. Thanks for having us. Appreciate it.

DR. MICHAEL RAYCRAFT: Thank you. And good night, everybody. I'll see you guys at the next session tomorrow night. Thank you.


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