When The Angel City Games Went Virtual, Athletes Adapted
Rachel Kroener had her sports schedule for 2020 completely mapped out.
A senior with cerebral palsy at the University of Texas at Arlington, Kroener and her teammates were poised for a championship run at the national collegiate wheelchair basketball tournament in late March. Afterward, she was planning to compete at June's U.S. Paralympics Team Trials in track and field, in hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics in August.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The basketball championships were cancelled, along with the Lady Movin' Mavs's title dreams, and the Tokyo Paralympics have been postponed until 2021.
Kroener was forced to quarantine in Texas and, eventually, at her family's home in Arizona. "I was pretty upset because this was my senior year," she said by phone, "and this was going to be my last national tournament as a college player. That got taken away."
From the Boston Marathon to the local 5K fun-run, from The Masters golf tournament to the charitable fund-raiser at the public links, the pandemic has affected the entire sports universe. While collegiate sports have been cancelled or remain on hold, professional leagues are attempting to rebound in new and experimental ways.
The adaptive sports world, meanwhile, is taking a more cautious approach toward reopening during the pandemic. While having a disability does not necessarily mean an individual is at higher risk for contracting coronavirus, some people with disabilities have underlying or pre-existing medical conditions (like diabetes) that may increase their chances of severe outcomes.
Community groups that typically organize in-person games, clinics and summer programs, like Disabled Sports USA, have halted live events for the foreseeable future. That includes the Angel City Games, which has established itself as Southern California's premier adaptive-sports competition after only a few years. Held annually on the campus of UCLA, the festival attracts hundreds of athletes of all ages and abilities, with every type of physical or visual impairment. Organizers recently decided to cancel the 2020 Games and, instead, are pivoting to a "Virtual Games" format.
Local entrepreneur Clayton Frech launched the Angel City Games in 2015, after his son, who was born a congenital amputee, gained self-confidence through sports. This year's four-day extravaganza was slated to showcase competitions in archery, sitting volleyball, swimming, table tennis, track and field, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, powerlifting and goalball (a sport designed for those with visual impairment).
Using Zoom and other technologies, the 2020 "Virtual Games" presented by The Hartford will be split across three weeks: July 13-19, August 3-9 and August 24-30. Instead of fans cheering them on inside Drake Stadium, participants can attend online clinics, resource nights, Workout Wednesdays, concerts, virtual challenges and community fun days — all of which are free.
"We are carrying on despite the circumstances," Frech said. "We are committed to honoring these amazing athletes, whether elite, emerging, or new to sport, with a virtual venue to learn new skills as well as showcase their talents."
Unlike the Paralympics, which feature the world's top adaptive athletes and use the same facilities as the Olympics, the Angel City Games is a grassroots event. Elite athletes often participate but, in many cases, their main duty is to encourage inexperienced kids and help them get involved in sports.
The decision to pivot toward a virtual setting makes perfect sense from a health and safety perspective. While adaptive athletes have far fewer opportunities for competition than non-disabled athletes, they're well-practiced in adjusting to unusual and uncomfortable circumstances.
In normal times, disabled athletes like Rachel Kroener face imposing obstacles that non-disabled athletes don't have to think about. They may live in an area with limited resources and few opportunities to compete in adaptive sports. Specialized equipment, often custom-made, can be expensive and difficult to find. Arranging transportation to and from training facilities can be a major hurdle. Runners with a visual impairment, for instance, rely on sighted partners to guide their every step, a major challenge in the era of physical distancing.
Take Kroener's practice routine at the track when she trains for seated (i.e., wheelchair) events in the javelin and shot put. Four stakes must be driven into the ground, in the shape of a square, inside of which she sets up her throwing chair. Ratchet tie-downs hold the chair in place so it doesn't move or ruin her throwing motion. After she has completed her throws, she must free her chair and retrieve the implements. Rinse, lather, repeat.
"It's really hard to do that by yourself, without the assistance of a trainer, coach, or teammate," she said.
The pandemic has exacerbated these quotidian challenges. In a recent survey of more than 1,400 adults (either people with disabilities or their caregivers), 58% responded that they "could not meet daily needs in recreation or other health related activities."
That void has left disabled athletes and their families with few options beyond improvised, DIY workouts. "There's no manual about what to do with your kid," said Mayra Mendez, whose daughter, Michaela, is a single-leg amputee and runs with a prosthetic blade. The Huntington Beach pool where Michaela swam several times a week has been closed; she now stretches and trains in a nearby park.
Social isolation, a major worry within the disability community in normal times, has also increased during quarantine. To remedy this, Frech and Angel City Games volunteers have assembled an all-star cast of adaptive athletes, coaches, and trainers to provide instruction and inspiration for disabled youngsters.
U.S. wheelchair basketball stars Matt Scott and Megan Blunk, who helped lead their teams to gold medals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, will teach ball-handling skills, while legendary Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, winner of seventeen medals, will offer her expertise about wheelchair racing. L.A.-based wheelchair dance troupe The Rollettes will lead a dance class.
"There are so few events for people with disabilities," Angel City Games program manager Camille Mahlknecht said. The Virtual Games "keep the community momentum going forward because they emphasize belonging. We're not going to gather together at UCLA, but we'll be together on Zoom. The kids can see their coaches and their friends."
Asher Loera, an eight-year-old with spina bifida, has attended the Angel City Games since he was a toddler. He was eager to see the many friends he has made at past events and excited to improve his 800-meter time in his new red racing chair. Since the live Games were cancelled, he has been staying fit by doing pushups and rolling his chair along the pavement in front of his house.
"It's a little difficult on the street because of the bumps in the road, and there's a lot of cars," Loera said.
Thanks to FaceTime advice from Candace Cable, another Paralympian star, Asher is beginning to learn sign language. Not only will he be able to communicate with someone who is deaf at future Angel City Games, but the practice strengthens his fingers and helps his hand coordination. "Candace's main goal is to keep Asher thinking positively," said Asher's mother, Delanie. "She's become so much more than just being a coach."
It's this kind of unique relationship — between an accomplished athlete and a relative newcomer — that makes the Angel City Games so special, according to Delanie Loera.
"We come to L.A. every year [from the Coachella Valley], and Asher gets to hang out with all his friends and coaches," she said. "It's his all-time favorite event. It's his Christmas."
Just as Southern California's disability community was adjusting to the new normal, they received another unsettling jolt. In late June, Angela Madsen, a Paralympian and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who had been a coach at past Angel City Games, died while attempting to row solo across the Pacific Ocean. On her 59th day at sea, the Long Beach native stopped communicating with her team. Her body was later found in the water tethered to her boat, according to Debra Madsen, Angela's wife. (A GoFundMe campaign is raising money to pay for travel and funeral expenses.)
Frech and Angel City Games organizers have dedicated this year's event to the memory of Angela Madsen, an adaptive-sports pioneer.
Asher Loera first met Madsen seven years ago, when he was just 18 months old. She took him aboard her boats, gave him two javelins and talked with him for hours about wheelchair sports.
"We were following her progress [across the Pacific] every day," Delanie Loera said. "Everyone who knew Angela knew she was going to do it, so this was a huge shock for us. Asher took it pretty well, but he's been sad. He doesn't like to say her name."
For Rachel Kroener, Madsen was "an incredible athlete, but I knew her more as a great friend. What happened almost hasn't hit me fully. I still think she's out there rowing."
Kroener had originally planned to travel to L.A. to participate in the Angel City Games. Instead, she'll take part in the Virtual Games from her parents' home in Arizona. After that, she'll begin the next chapter of her life — and that may mean the end of her Paralympic dreams.
Kroener is moving to Southern California to enroll in grad school at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she'll study orthotics and prosthetics. Eventually, she'd like to work for Team USA.
"I'll train as much as I can [to make the Paralympic team in 2021]," she said, "but I need to make sure that I'm doing well in my graduate program because I want to be the best clinician I can be."
David Davis is the author of the forthcoming book Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Basketball, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation, slated for release in August 2020. Follow him @ddavisla.