The Competitive Edge of Adaptive Sports
Participation in sports holds many benefits for individuals with disabilities. PTs, PTAs, and students have important roles to play.
By Eric Ries | June 2019
When Megan Blunk says she spent the year after a devastating 2008 accident "in the dark," the description has a double meaning. The Washington state native was 18 and a month out of high school when the driver of a motorcycle on which she was the passenger crashed, resulting in injuries that paralyzed her from the waist down. Blunk had battled depression before the accident. It asserted itself with a vengeance as she envisioned her active life as a multi-sport athlete coming to an end. "I had to face everything that I no longer could do. It felt like I was mourning the death of my old life, yet I had to keep on living," she says. "It was incredibly hard. I spent a year in the dark, not knowing if there was anything out there for me."
Blunk received physical therapist services during that period, but her physical therapists (PTs) were cautious in their treatment and set what struck her as modest goals. She deemed it a "waste of time" and quit. Looking back, Blunk understands and appreciates the need for prudence and safety, but she wishes the PTs had tried harder to push and motivate her.
Her observations at the time were that "people in wheelchairs always felt sad" and that "nothing seemed exciting about wheelchair sports."
That all changed one day, when she witnessed a group of wheelchair basketball players moving scrappily around the court on custom chairs and saw that the sport could be "highly competitive" and "badass." Blunt attended a series of wheelchair basketball camps, where her talent was rewarded with a full scholarship to the University of Illinois. She was a member of the United States' gold-medal winning wheelchair basketball team at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She's now a member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's San Diego Wolf Pack, as well as a motivational speaker.
Blunk is quick to emphasize that she's had "a lot of great experiences" with physical therapy. Still, she regards that first year following her injury—"when I was just blindly trying to have some hope"—with sadness.
"If any PT I'd encountered then had truly
been educated about adaptive sports—like the
fact that some colleges offer full-ride
scholarships to play them, that there are
Paralympics for elite athletes—and, especially,"
she adds, "if any of my PTs had had personal
experience with adaptive sports and felt
passionate about it, I'm sure I'd have fed off
that excitement and enthusiasm."
Megan Fisher, PT, DPT, ATC, similarly received what she describes as "pretty conservative" physical therapist services when she returned to the University of Montana after a June 2002 car accident that killed her best friend and required the amputation of her left leg below the knee. "I was 19 years old and was in the clinic with transtibial amputees who were in their 80s and 90s," she says. Like Blunk, Fisher had been a multi-sport athlete who had gained sustenance and identity from those pursuits. The experience in the clinic turned her off. In the process of choosing a career path, she crossed "physical therapist" off the list.
Instead, Fisher became an trainer. Determined to remain active in sports, she found her way into adaptive cycling. During a 24-hour mountain bike race in 2009, she came to the attention of a member of the US Paracycling Team—which, she says, "led me down that path." Fisher won individual gold and silver medals in paracycling at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and individual silver and bronze medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. As it happened, she was on hiatus from doctor of physical therapy studies at the University of Washington when she competed in London. Satisfying experiences with physical therapy and other factors had convinced her, by that time in her life, to add the letters "PT" to her "ATC."
Today, Fisher remains a busy athlete when she's not at her day job at Alpine Physical Therapy in Missoula, Montana. She has 4 different legs or blades, depending on the sports activity in which she's engaged. She's happy with where self-motivation has taken her in life.
Still, she says, "It would've been nice if my PTs had been able to help me get in touch with adaptive sports organizations early on. It might have
been a source of support and encouragement, and
a way to broaden my perspective and pursuits."
Dani Burt, PT, DPT, wholeheartedly agrees with
Blunk and Fisher about the need for PTs—physical
therapist assistants (PTAs), too, she adds—to, at
minimum, know enough about adaptive sports to
offer resources, such as the names and web addresses
of leading organizations, to patients. Burt, however,
was in the perfect place to make that connection after
a July 2004 motorcycle accident required amputation
of her right leg above the knee. She rehabbed at Sharp
Memorial Hospital in San Diego, which works with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and the Amputee Coalition of America to ensure that patients have the information they need on leading an active life and playing sports if they so choose—and the mentoring and other supports they need to get there.
Finding her way into to adaptive surfing, Burt says, "was a crucial piece in my recovery. I'd always loved the ocean. I just had to figure out a way to get back to it."
Using funds from a CAF grant, she worked with a prosthetist to fashion a "surf leg," and soon Burt was on her way. By 2016 she'd been crowned the US Adaptive Surfing Champion in the mixed-gender division, and the following year she took the women's division. She also went to school and became a PT—grateful for physical therapy's role in her recovery and wanting to pay that assistance forward to other individuals with physical challenges. She works at Sharp—the same hospital where she recovered from her injuries.
"In physical terms, surfing has helped me so much," Burt says. "Not only the sport itself but just getting to the ocean. Being able to carry a 9-foot board across soft sand with a prosthetic leg has helped me tremendously in my everyday life. It's contributed to the endurance, strength, and balance I need to tolerate standing for 10 hours while working with patients." The message Burt now shares with PTs and PTAs whenever she can is this: "If you can offer patients with amputations and other physical challenges the possibility of engaging in sports, it can completely change their relationship with physical therapy, vastly improve their overall health, and transform their outlook on life."