Success with Honor: Ability Athletes
July 15, 2008
By Keith Hejna, Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Track & field, swimming, basketball and powerlifting require use of the legs. It's hard to argue with this statement.
The Penn State Ability Athletics program allows disabled athletes to train, compete at an elite level, and ultimately prove that statement false.
Since 1999, Ability Athletics has provided the means for physically disabled athletes to receive Division I collegiate training and help prepare them for national and international competition.
"We call it Ability Athletics because we don't want to focus on what you don't have," says program coordinator Teri Jordan. "We want to focus on what you do have."
Jordan also coaches track and basketball for the program and has trained some of the finest physically disabled athletes in the country. The former Penn State women's track coach excelled on the collegiate level at University of Kansas and went on to set a world record in the 10-mile run and a national record at 5,000 meters before coaching women's World Championship athletics teams in 1995 and 1999.
"Coaching track is coaching track, except now I am learning to change wheels instead of spikes and how to throw or run from a better prosthetic leg or how to get a mechanical advantage from a wheelchair," she says.
For discus or javelin throwing, for example, new brackets can be put on a chair to give athletes a greater range of motion. The program recently acquired custom fit wheelchairs to allow for top performance.
"I'm on such a learning curve in these last nine years," she says.
The move from coaching college track to Paralympic athletics has given Jordan the opportunity to utilize her biomechanics and adaptive physical education degree from University of Kansas.
"I got distracted for 23 years coaching college track," she says, "but that led me to be a better coach for these athletes."
Three athletes who have traveled different paths that led them to Jordan's program have trained mercilessly without the full use of their lower bodies toward the same goal: to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
Meet Maggie Redden
Redden contracted polio at the age of one in India before being adopted and brought to New Jersey. She has been confined to a wheelchair for almost all of her life, but her life has been anything but confined.
The Penn State graduate with a communication degree has been competing in the Junior National Wheelchair Championships since she was five years old. Though she was the only wheelchair sprinter on her Holy Family Academy high school track team in Bayonne, N.J., she trained with the rest of the athletes and earned a spot on the Junior National team that traveled to Australia in 2003.
Requiring a wheelchair has not held Redden back from any of the things she wants to do in her life. In addition to being an exceptional athlete, she was an Olympic torchbearer, a 2006 finalist for Miss New Jersey and Penn State homecoming and is a certified scuba diver and ski instructor.
When deciding what college to attend, Redden wanted to be sure that she could utilize her athletic abilities and grow as an athlete as well as a person.
"I applied to nine different schools, but I wanted track because that is a big part of my life," she says. "I had no intentions of coming to Penn State, but then somebody told me that Teri saw me and then she started to recruit me and it all came together."
Jordan has helped cultivate Redden from a talented athlete to an extraordinary competitor. Her first elite-level competition was last year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Parapan American Games in which she captured two silver medals (100- and 200-meters).
"Training with [Jordan] and working out at Penn State have really upped my game," she says.
After graduating last year, Redden got a job in the Penn State Athletic Communications department and she continues to train at her alma mater. For two hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, Redden sprints and lifts weights at the Penn State Multisport Facility to prepare for the 2008 Paralympic Games.
"That's the whole reason I came back to Penn State, so I could start training with [Jordan] and hopefully make the U.S. team."
Redden took part in time trials from June 12-15. She ran in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter races. She ran the 100-meter in 19.17 seconds and ran a personal best 34.31 in the 200-meter race, earning a spot on the U.S. team in each event. She also ran the 400-meter preliminary race in 1:05.49, another personal best, qualifying her as an alternate for the event.
"I always think you should go for your passion," Jordan said. "If it's supposed to happen, it will happen."
Meet Rohan Murphy
Born with severe congenital leg deformities, Murphy had both of his underdeveloped legs amputated at the age of three. At the suggestion of his eighth grade gym teacher, the Queens, N.Y. native joined his high school wrestling team and went on to post a 30-3 record his senior year. He took his competitive edge to Penn State and went 3-5 for the Nittany Lions while inspiring his coaches, teammates and fellow students with his tremendous work ethic.
According to Penn State wrestling coach Troy Sunderland, Murphy displayed his determination when he completed the team's most rigorous conditioning workout - scaling Tussey Mountain - and did so using only his arms.
"I was talking with my [strength] coaches and we decided Rohan should go up halfway," Sunderland told Sports Illustrated, "but I looked up and there he was going up to the top."
Murphy earned his bachelor's degree in kinesiology in December 2006, and is presently pursuing his master's in health, policy and administration from Penn State.
Though he excelled in wrestling, Jordan convinced him to convert to powerlifting. In addition to training with the wrestling team, Murphy joined the Ability Athletics program and learned how to power lift. He was a natural.
In 2006, he placed ninth (third in the junior division) in the 56 kg division at the IPC Powerlifting World Championships in Busan, Korea. He broke his own national record, 280 lbs by a 125-pounder, with a lift of 303 pounds. Currently able to bench 335 lbs, according to Jordan, Murphy hopes to represent the United States as a powerlifter in Beijing.
Murphy brought publicity to Penn State's Ability Athletics program when he was featured in a recent Nike commercial. Jordan recognizes that exposure like this will help the growing program continue to flourish.
Meet Kortney Clemons
While overseas in Iraq as a U.S. Army combat medic on Feb. 21, 2005, Clemons had his right leg severed above the knee by a roadside bomb as he attended to an injured soldier. Using Ossur's Flex-Foot Cheetah®, a prosthetic leg custom made for sprinting, Clemons trained under Jordan while attending Penn State from which he recently graduated with a degree in Recreation, Park and Tourism Management while training with Jordan.
The Little Rock, Miss. native is the first "above the knee amputee" Jordan has ever worked with.
"It's like running on stilts," she said. "Can you imagine how cumbersome that is?"
Even without a right leg, the former junior college cornerback has accomplished several Paralympic feats. In 2005 he set a national Paralympics powerlifting record of 325 lbs for a 155-pounder. The following year, he placed 10th in powerlifting at the World Paralympics in Busan, Korea and first in the National Paralympics. He was the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic games.
This year he hopes to rejoin his training partner Murphy on the powerlifting team in the Paralympics in Beijing, just as he did last year in the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. He is also trying to qualify for the 100-meter race again this year. He was the national champion in the 100-meters in 2007 with a career best 15.61, but came up just short of reaching the World Championship qualifying standard of 14.45.
Though he may have once aspired to participate in the Olympic Games, Clemons is focused on Beijing, and dedicated to becoming the best Paralypian he can be.
"I'm not bitter about my injury," he once told USA Today. "Things happen for a reason, and my reason is to motivate and inspire others."
Maybe that is just another thing he learned from Jordan, as that is the same reason why she started the Ability Athletics program.
"Help somebody get what they want in life and you might get something that you want in life," Jordan says. "If you can do that, then you've figured out what life is all about."
About the Program
Though the initial conception of the program was for it to be purely recreational, Jordan took it to the next level by training athletes that have gone on to win Paralympic medals.
In 2003, Jeff Hantz took home the bronze in shot put and javelin in the World Wheelchair Track and Field Championships in New Zealand. The Penn State computer science graduate and recent Duquesne Law graduate also placed sixth in javelin and eighth in discus in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
However, the program is still a work in progress.
"I would love to see us have a wheelchair basketball team at the collegiate level," Jordan says. "I would love to see us have full funding."
The program currently has one active scholarship available for $4,500 next year, but part of Jordan's job has been to lobby for more funding from the university.
"I think it's worth delegating scholarships to the program so that the athletes know about the opportunities that are out there," Redden says. "Teri is working really hard to get us sponsorships and funding. I've seen changes."
The University of Illinois and the University of Arizona offer full scholarships to disabled athletes. Jordan would like to get Penn State to do the same.
"I think we are doing well with a little, but I would like to do more with a lot," she says. "Right now I am getting calls from Japan and from all across the country from programs wanting to mimic Penn State's program."
Meghan Sooy, a former Penn State Ability Athletics track & field athlete with cerebral palsy, recently joined the staff of a similar program at the University of Arizona. Jordan counts nearly 250 of her "able-bodied" athletes that are coaching elsewhere. Now she is starting to see the same trend with her Paralympic athletes.
Jordan is also responsible for hiring the best coaches for each sport and providing the athletes with as many of the opportunities that "able-bodied" collegiate athletes are offered.
"I believe that maybe we can do the same thing for these athletes that we did for women's sports," she says.
Jordan has been working with a lawyer in Annapolis, who is working with the U.S. Paralympics, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA), and the National Consortium on Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities (NCPERID), to draft and push through "Title X."
Just as Title IX guarantees females in public schools the same athletic opportunities as males, Title X would do the same for physically disabled athletes.
"I don't want anyone to be denied an opportunity the way women were denied opportunities," she said. "Now you wouldn't even know there were no women's [athletics] programs at one time. I kind of feel like I'm repeating history."
Title X will potentially be an amendment to the veterans' aid package.
"This is a real timely legislation, with the [Iraq] war," she says.