Rachel Grusse has been playing wheelchair basketball for the past 10 years. But when it came time for the Glastonbury resident to look at colleges, the closest one that offered the sport on a competitive level was in Edinboro, Pa.
Grusse, a double leg amputee, went to Edinboro University for a semester to play. But it was too big of an adjustment, and too far away from home, and she ended up transferring to Central Connecticut State University, graduating last December.
If UConn had a wheelchair basketball team at the time, she would have considered going there.
“I might have, honestly,” she said. “I might have come here, if they had a program.”
That may soon change.
Grusse, 23, was at UConn’s Guyer Gym Thursday night, participating in a wheelchair basketball clinic that welcomed prospective athletes from the student body, future students, and able-bodied UConn students who wanted to learn more about the sport. Ryan Martin of Simsbury, a former professional wheelchair basketball player who runs the Ryan Martin Foundation, spearheaded the program. His foundation has donated $45,000 worth of specialized wheelchairs and equipment and is setting up a scholarship endowment for individuals with disabilities who wish to play adaptive sports at UConn.
Now he is waiting to see which direction the university wants to go. Martin envisions a wheelchair basketball team that could compete with established programs like those at the University of Illinois or the University of Alabama.
“It ultimately depends on what the university wants to do with the program,” Martin said Thursday night. “Does the university want to have a competitive sports model? Which is why we went out and bought the chairs and raised an endowment. That’s the direction we’d like to see the university take it.
“On a college campus, we talk about accessibility, but I think the term now is inclusivity. Having opportunities for every single person should be the goal of every state university, and I think UConn is a prestigious state university that has a chance to potentially do it really well.”
Martin has served as a consultant for several universities as well as the NCAA. His foundation’s mission is to help people with disabilities become more independent through sports, particularly wheelchair basketball. Hundreds of athletes participate in his camps and junior programs at the Hospital of Special Care in New Britain and in Madrid, Spain (where he has played professionally) each summer.
He would like them to have an opportunity to go to their state university and play sports. Not only that, but he would like UConn’s program, which would be the first of its kind in the Northeast, to become a model for others in the future.
There are now 13 teams that play an intercollegiate schedule under the umbrella of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. There also are a number of college programs that play local or regional schedules in different sports.
“The two biggest barriers for a university to start this program [are] the initial equipment, and then, kind of the know-how to do it,” Martin said. “Being from Connecticut, this has always been a goal of mine to establish something like this. I think UConn is in a tremendous position and the ball is in their court for what they want to do with this program long-term.”
In the spring, UConn President Susan Herbst signed off on the proposal and Donna Korbel, UConn’s director of the center for students with disabilities, and her staff worked to identify students who wanted to play. But it’s not certain what the university’s plan is for the program.
“This is a great initiative and clearly has drawn a lot of interest and enthusiasm — it’s off to an exciting start,” UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said Friday. “Given the budget constraints at the state and university levels, we couldn’t say yet whether UConn would be in a position to expand this or similar initiatives, but we’re always looking at ways to give students and the community a wide variety of programs.”
Thursday night, as music blared and people watched on the sidelines, both disabled and able-bodied students and others raced up and down the courts in wheelchairs. On one court, Paul Weiland, who works for Martin’s foundation as a lead curriculum instructor, was explaining to rules of the sport to able-bodied students, who were sitting in wheelchairs getting ready to play. On another court, a game was in progress, with a mix of able-bodied students and wheelchair athletes from Martin’s foundation and the Connecticut Spokebenders, a wheelchair basketball team.
“We want to show UConn what is possible and how much people can get behind this sport and how many doors it’ll open for students with different challenges,” said Weiland, a Bristol resident who was a college wheelchair basketball teammate of Martin’s and has coached and played at the high school, college and Paralympic level.
“To be the first program in this region, given the vast history of basketball at UConn, just makes sense. With the equipment and facilities we have and the backing of Ryan’s foundation, we could easily be extremely competitive inside of five years. It would be a great source of pride for not only the university but the community and the state.
“We’re always fighting for a national championship in basketball. Why not at the wheelchair basketball level?”
About six UConn students, including Mitchell Dubuc, a junior from Adams, Mass., and his friend Anders Waldo, a sophomore from Glastonbury, showed up to play at the clinic for about a half-hour before they had to go to class. Both would be interested in playing wheelchair basketball.
Waldo has hereditary spastic paraplegia and can walk, but found it easier to navigate the sprawling UConn campus in a wheelchair. He never played sports in high school.
“Oh my God, yeah, it’s very exciting,” he said of the program. “I’d love to get involved. I wasn’t a sporty person in high school but now I have this [wheelchair], it’s a way to enter it.”
Then there are people like Grusse, was born without a spleen and developed a subsequent bacterial infection, resulting in her legs and parts of her fingers being amputated when she was 16 months old. She had always been athletic but found it hard to keep up while playing sports on her prosthetic legs.
“I always played basketball with my sister growing up but I couldn’t keep up running,” said Grusse, who plays for the Spokebenders and also plays sled hockey. “My sister is a lot taller than me so she stuffed me all the time. So I only liked playing H-O-R-S-E. When I found out about wheelchair basketball, I was like, ‘This is awesome because I can play competitively.’ I’m a competitive person. I want to play at a competitive level.”
Martin grew up in Somers and, like many kids in Connecticut, dreamed of playing basketball at UConn like Chris Smith or Donyell Marshall or Nykesha Sales, but he went to Southwest Minnesota State University to play.
“There’s a good handful of students who could be prospective UConn students as well who would consider UConn, where in the past they might not have because there was nothing here for them in that regard,” Martin said. “My contention with the university is with the size of UConn, they have the population on campus to get it started and demographically, the region would support this program. I think tonight was a good illustration of that.”