When Chris Kelley arrived in New York for a wheelchair tennis tournament, continuing his athletic career at Michigan was already on his radar.
As the 2019 United States Tennis Association champion with a No. 2 ranking in the Men’s A division, Kelley was highly sought after and Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, the Director of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program, had made it clear that he wanted Kelley as a Wolverine.
About to return home, Kelley crossed paths with “the tipping point” — Okanlami was coincidentally at the same New York airport as him at the same time.
“It felt like I was supposed to be here (at Michigan),” Kelley said.
While Okanlami may not be able to stumble upon every prospective athlete across the nation, Michigan must find a way to separate itself from colleges like Alabama, which has a multi-million dollar facility dedicated to adaptive sports, or Illinois and its rich adaptive sports history.
Still in the early stages, it’s no secret that the Wolverines are playing catch up. But Michigan has all the makings of becoming a recruiting powerhouse in the Midwest.
“There is no program that exists in Michigan and the surrounding area,” Erik Robeznieks, the Project Manager of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program, said. “The closest program to us in the collegiate space is the University of Illinois.”
Kelley, a Michigan native, chose not to play adaptive sports as an undergrad because there simply wasn’t an in-state option.
Now, there is.
As a result, Michigan can tap into the in-state recruiting pool, as well as the remainder of the Midwest athletes looking for a program closer to home — a clear path to bolstering a program on the rise. With that said, it is far more than the most convenient option.
“The academics (were) another thing that drew me to Michigan,” Kelley said. “When you’re looking at athletics, whether you’re on the adaptive or able-bodied side, we all know that eventually, we’re not going to be playing sports. Our bodies will get to a point where competitive play just isn’t in the cards anymore. When I started thinking about my future, the opportunities that the University has for me to further my education were more appealing to me.”
A blossoming relationship with Michigan Medicine offers Adaptive Sports a critical resource when it comes to sports medicine and prioritizing the health of its student-athletes.
“Having somebody who understands disabilities and the needs of the wheelchair population on a team overall is pretty important,” Kelley said. “Johan Latorre is one of the coaches that helps out, and he’s also a doctor.”
But physical health is not the only factor contributing to an athlete’s ability to perform at the highest level. A robust support team fortified by university resources assists student-athletes with all aspects of life.
“The fact that there is an integrated support team between academic support services, program staff, the coach, their peer student-athletes,” Robeznieks said. “We have all those different resources and connections within the University in place to support the all-around student-athlete.”
Yet programs like Michigan Medicine, MDisability and Services for Students with Disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. A partnership with the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living has provided a space that Adaptive Sports can call its own.
“Our athletes need strength and conditioning,” Robeznieks said. “They need fitness beyond their sport. We’ve painted the walls maize and blue. We put in rubber flooring to actually make a better tactile environment for people in day-chairs.”
Adaptive Sports has also partnered with the Varsity Tennis Center and the U-M Indoor Track Building, providing frequent access to high-level facilities. But “frequent” is not enough. Equitable access to the resources Michigan offers able-bodied student-athletes is the program’s ticket to appealing to the best adaptive student-athletes around the country.
“We’re not asking for a 10-million dollar facility for ourselves,” Robeznieks said. “We’re just looking for that same level of access.”
As the program continues its efforts for equitable resources, notoriety remains an equally important area for improvement. A multitude of facilities are only worthwhile if prospective student-athletes are aware of them. Largely dependent on word of mouth as of now, Adaptive Sports has centered its focus on carving out its own recruiting pipeline by linking itself to the greater adaptive sports community.
“A great end for us was establishing connections with the people who are now affiliated with the Midwest Adaptive Sports Committee,” Robzenieks said. “We are now in with a system of people and organizations that operate within adaptive sports at the junior level in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.”
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, the Turnstone Center for Children & Adult with Disabilities and the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association have generated a recruiting pool brimming with talented athletes looking for post-secondary education.
On the flip side of things, universities across the country need help from the NCAA to make information about prospective adaptive student-athletes more readily available.
“In able-bodied tennis, there’s the Universal Tennis Ranking,” Kelley said. “You get star-rankings so you might be a one-star recruit or a two-star recruit or a three-star recruit. And in wheelchair tennis, we don’t have something like that right now.”
With the minimal recruiting infrastructure in place for adaptive sports, there needs to be a massive implementation of tools and platforms to help coaches and scouts evaluate the best athletes around the country.
When there are elite players like Kelley, decorated with accolades and looking to take their athletic career to the next level, the entirety of the adaptive sports realm needs to know about it.
As the logistics of adaptive sports continue to be fluid at both the university and national level, one thing remains constant: Michigan’s program offers the opportunity to be a part of history.
“It takes a very different kind of athlete to come to a new program because there is a bit of unknown rather than the tried and true history of some of these more established programs,” Robeznieks said. “But some of the feedback we’ve gotten from the athletes so far is that they feel a lot of value being part of the University of Michigan Adaptive Sports program because day after day we’re forging history.
“We’re building a program from scratch and they get to be there from day one.”
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