DENVER — The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and NCAA announced new programming Thursday in an attempt to employ college sports settings to increase visibility and possible gold-medal pathways for Paralympians.
The organizations are planning a wheelchair college All-Star event featuring the US Paralympic team at the women’s Division II and III Final Fours for basketball; a 100-meter Para-college wheelchair title race at the Drake Relays for track; and the USTA’s wheelchair college championships as part of the NCAA Division I championships in tennis.
Sarah Wilhelmi, the USOPC’s senior director of collegiate partnerships, said more than half the 2021 US Paralympic team competed collegiately across 76 schools in 14 sports. She said the goal is to take Paralympic sports on the same path as women’s sports, many of which were run out of the schools of nursing or education before they were folded into universities’ athletic departments.
“Women’s sports really took off after schools were connecting to engineer a competitive pathway,” Wilhelmi said. “In short, growth perpetuates growth, which we believe will benefit current and future adaptive sport athletes in our country.”
The announcement comes less than a month after the Pac-12 introduced a first-of-its-kind policy that gives Para athletes access to athletic department facilities and coaching at those conference’s schools in efforts to further their training.
The ultimate goal, the Pac-12 says, is to give athletes support to train for the Paralympics and other elite Para competitions.
The NCAA-USOPC initiative is another example of the growing partnership between the organizations, which established a Para-college inclusion project last year to accompany other programming centered around college sports and the Olympics. Around three-quarters of the last US Summer Olympics team had ties to a college team.
“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,” said Jean Merrill, director of the NCAA Office of Inclusion.
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