Sports Association at Gaylord Hospital Makes Anything Possible for Disabled Athletes
Todd Munn, the director of the Sports Association of Gaylord Hospital, spends his days working to enhance the lives of people with disabilities using recreation as therapy. He feels that everyone, including those with a disability, should be able to participate in any sport or activity they want to.
"One of the worst things we can hear is someone say, 'I used to do this, but I can't now because I have a disability'-our motto is 'Anything is possible,'" said Munn. "The important thing is to come out and try something. There are a lot of very accessible sports out there; you just have to know the proper equipment and who to ask for help. We want to reach out to people with disabilities and get them to do what they want to do."
As a recreational therapist, Munn uses sports and other forms of recreation to rehabilitate people not only physically, but cognitively and emotionally as well. The Sports Association was formed 15 years ago with Munn taking over a decade ago.
"I work to make sports possible for people with disabilities," said Munn, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. "Our aim is to return people to the things they want to do after a disabling injury."
Guilford's Scott MacDonald was paralyzed from the chest down while serving in the military 10 years ago. He had dabbled in handcycling, but after he came across the Sports Association when the sports clinic with which he was involved through the VA took a tour of Gaylord Hospital, he was hooked.
"I met Todd and everyone there and he told me about the [handcycling] club and rides and suggested I get involved," said MacDonald. "The first time I went on my bike, it was something I hadn't done in years and here I was doing it-it was unbelievable. From there, I helped Todd grow the handcycling clinic."
MacDonald and Munn teamed up with www.bikeon.com based out of Providence to share handcycling with other disabled people. MacDonald has several handcyles, as does Gaylord Hospital, while www.bikeon.com brings several so that people can experiment with different kinds of bikes to find the right one for them.
Many people are content to use handcycling as a means of independence, but there are a few, like MacDonald, who take it to the next level. He has gone on to participate in numerous road races, Century Rides, and 100-mile rides and is currently training for an Ironman that includes a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.
"Every time I see Todd, I blame him for getting me to where I am now," said MacDonald. "I went from just wanting to get out of the house to competing like this. They are the ones who got me involved in handcycling, which got me involved in triathlons like when I used to walk."
In addition to handcycling, the Sports Association offers many other programs to adults with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, amputations, or those who have suffered strokes. The association draws people from across the state and even some from Rhode Island and New York.
"We're not their only option, but we're the only program like this in Connecticut," said Munn.
With more than 1,500 athletes in its database, the Sports Association has about 50 people who participate on a regular basis. Another unique aspect of the program is its cost-for the majority of programs, there are no fees involved.
Munn recalls working with a woman who was adjusting to a disability and wanted to kayak again. He and his staff helped her relearn the sport adapting to her disability and made sure she could kayak safely.
"After we were done, she asked about the cost and if insurance covered it and was surprised to find out there was no cost," said Munn. "It's just something Gaylord Hospital offers to the community. If someone is an adult with a physical disability, they are eligible to join us."
In addition to the upcoming clinics (see sidebar), the Sports Association offers not only teaching clinics-including tennis, archery, golf, and kayaking-but team and club sports as well. According to the Sports Association's website, www.gaylord.org/Home/WhyGaylord/SportsAssociation.aspx, the teaching clinics "provide participants with a safe, supervised, supportive setting in which to learn or relearn sport skills."
The Connecticut Jammers is the state's only quad rugby team, providing competitive opportunities for athletes with quadriplegia. The Jammers compete in tournaments throughout the United States and are a member of the U.S. Quad Rugby Association. Gaylord Hospital also has a tennis team that competes on the hospital's new courts and travels throughout New England.
The Alpine Ski Club hosts six trips a season to Pico Mountain in Vermont where participants are assisted by Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sport members. The Handcycling Club hosts rides throughout the state.
There is also an annual Day of Discovery where participants can not only try the different sports the Sports Association offers but experience other adaptive sports offered through other programs as well. Topics include quad rugby, wheelchair tennis, kayaking, skiing, scuba diving, sailing, and handcycling with an expert in each field hosting an educational demonstration.
"Someone can come to the Day of Discovery and get all of the information to get involved in one night," said Munn. "We go over all of the things we offer. Other programs in Connecticut also come and share what they provide. There is a fantastic adaptive sailing program, along with a sled hockey program, that works with us."
Sail Connecticut Access, which sails out of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, has averaged 300 sails a season over the last three years. The program uses its three sailboats to give persons with disabilities a chance to learn sailing.
MacDonald, who has also tried skiing and is next planning on scuba diving, has benefited so much from the program that he gives back as a peer mentor.
"I mentor a lot there and a lot of guys don't feel like doing stuff, but the rec department there really pushes you and gives you a reason to do things, explaining why and the health benefits, mentally and physically," said MacDonald. "You just have to try things. [The staff at the Sports Association] teaches the disabled that there really aren't boundaries and if you think there are, they teach you a way around it. You can still do it, it's just a little different."
The Sports Association adapts several other special events throughout the year, including the Gaylord Hospital Open Golf Tournament, the Gaylord Road Race, and the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project-which took place from Aug. 6 to 8.
Governor M. Jodi Rell proclaimed it "Gaylord Hospital Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Weekend" in the State of Connecticut and the event drew 25 veterans and 16 guests, drawing competition from throughout not only Connecticut, but as far as California. Participants were treated to a weekend of adaptive sports and activities, including gourmet meals, outings, a New Britain Rock Cats' baseball game, and a banquet honoring the veterans and thanking volunteers.
Guilford's Lisa Boudreau was one of the participants who was excited about the event after attending a Wounded Warrior program in May.
"I was just starting to get physically fit-it was the first time I got back out there and I didn't have a lot of confidence," she said. "They were swimming the distance of a lake. I went the length a couple times. They make you feel very special about what you did for your country. It was the first time I felt special about being a vet."
Munn was pleased with the event's turnout and hopes to continue providing that resource for veterans, but for now, his focus is turned back to the Sports Association's adaptive sports programs.
"I enjoy working with people with disabilities and being able to make sports possible-it's a matter of adapting the equipment and technique-and help them get the fulfillment from their recreation like we all should," said Munn. "Every day is a challenge and every day is rewarding. It's a lot of fun in the process helping people do what they want to do."
MacDonald hopes that other people take advantage of the resources at Gaylord Hospital so they, too, can find the satisfaction and fulfillment he has found in sports.
"I never thought I'd enjoy sports as much as I do now as a paraplegic athlete," said MacDonald. "The programs build self-esteem and self-confidence and teach people they could do things they didn't think they could do-that opens the door to do other things and give them that boost of confidence. The people there are so great, so willing to help, and instill that self-confidence and independence to go out and do things."
Golf ClinicsTuesday, Aug. 31 from 2 to 4 p.m.Tuesday, Sept. 21 from 2 to 4 p.m.Golf professionals and recreation therapists work together to provide athletes with physical disabilities one-on-one instruction both on the driving range and on the new putting green on the South Lawn (weather permitting, otherwise held at Roncari Hall, Gaylord Hospital).
Outdoor Kayaking ClinicSaturday, Sept. 18 from 9 a.m. to2 p.m.Participants must have taken the indoor kayaking clinic. The outdoor clinic, to be held in New Haven, offers the opportunity to kayak on open water and improve paddle strokes.
Indoor Kayaking ClinicsTuesday, Oct. 5 from 3 to 5 p.m.Held in Gaylord Hospital's Flagg Pool, participants learn everything from parts of the boat to kayak safety, paddle strokes to transfers, and have the opportunity to get into the kayaks and practice transfers, strokes, and perform an optional “wet exit.” Equipment is supplied.
Cycle Club RidesSaturday, Oct. 9 from 10 a.m. to2 p.m.Riders meet at 10 a.m. in Farmington. Most of the ride is on linear trail, closed to motor vehicle traffic. Several handcycles are available for use for those interested that do not own their own cycles, but you must call to reserve one.
Archery ClinicsTuesday, Sept. 14 from 2 to 4 p.m.Try the fun and challenging sport of archery on the South Lawn Archery Range. Equipment, instruction, and refreshments are provided.Most events are free and all are open to adults with physical disabilities. Volunteers are welcome. For info or to register (required to attend programs), call203-284-2772.For information on Sail Connecticut Access, call Rob at 860-304-6588 or visit www.sailctaccess.org.