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Courtney Cooper

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The Spirit of Inclusion

Reprinted from SNS September 2017

Giving everyone a chance to participate at the Burke Wheelchair Games

When Paralympians Jessica Galli and Maggie Redden first competed in the Burke Wheelchair Games just outside New York City during the 1990s, they raced in their everyday wheelchairs in a parking lot outside the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital, trying to keep within racing lines drawn by chalk. 

“The parking lot was filled with vans and campers, with people sleeping in their cars throughout the whole weekend to both participate and watch,” says Roger Mutter, who at the age of 69 will be competing in the Burke Wheelchair Games for the 25th time this year.

That was back before adaptive sports started creeping into mainstream conversation and media around the world. 

For more than three decades now, athletes with an impairment in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tri-state area have assembled at the Burke Wheelchair Games as an all-inclusive invitational meet, and its aim remains the same today.

“The Burke Wheelchair Games started before the surge of adaptive sports. Thirty or 40 years ago there weren’t the opportunities that adaptive athletes have today,” says Richard Sgaglio, the senior administrator of marketing, communications and development at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital, who also serves on the organizing committee for the Games. “We’ve kept the Games about the spirit of inclusion rather than the spirit of competition. It’s a competitive event in that we have winners and accolades, but it’s really about getting people out to compete and the camaraderie around that.”

The 38th annual Burke Wheelchair Games will be held on Sept. 23, with around 70 athletes expected to compete across four categories: Futures Division (ages 6 and under), Junior Division, Adult Division and Masters Division. Field events, table tennis and an obstacle course will get underway at 9 a.m., with track events beginning at 1:30 p.m. The Games will also feature family-friendly musical entertainment, silent auctions and raffles.

Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in Westchester County, just outside New York City, is a nonprofit acute rehabilitation hospital that offers both inpatient and outpatient programs for those who have experienced a disabling illness, traumatic injury or surgery.

Once a year, the storied 61-acre Burke campus is transformed into a forum for sportsmanship, camaraderie and determination, while also showing the public the therapeutic benefits of sports.

“The Burke Wheelchair Games have always been the highest class of the invitational form of competition in whatever sports they’ve offered,” Mutter says. “But it also doesn’t make any difference how good you are. It’s all-inclusive.”

A Look Back

The first 10 years of the Burke Wheelchair Games took place in an environment that wasn’t exactly conducive to sports, but athletes nonetheless flocked to Westchester County during the 1980s from as far as Boston and Washington, D.C., for what was back then a three-day event and also included weightlifting. For years, organizers tried to build a track, but surrounding residents of the hospital insisted it would be a “blight” on the neighborhood. 

“It was rudimentary, having it in a parking lot,” says current meet director Ralph Armento. “It wasn’t until 1989 that they actually built a track.”

A compromise was made between the two groups, with a half-sized 200-meter track constructed adjacent to the hospital.

Nobody witnessed the Burke Wheelchair Games develop more over time than Mutter, who since 1983 has participated in the event 24 times, having taken just a few years off during the late 1990s. He’s participated in a majority of the sports, devoting 14 of those years to entering as a competitive athlete in the shot put, discus and javelin — the same three sports in which he’ll be competing in the Masters Division this year. 

From there, he gained enough experience to go on and be a 12-time national invitational champion in the javelin during a time when U.S. Paralympics didn’t yet exist and organized parasport competitions were hard to find.

In the second decade of the event, Mutter saw the influx of patients at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital slow down dramatically, so the Games started to include people with cerebral palsy and a range of other disabilities, along with younger generations of participants. 

The late Maureen Ryan-Carr, a senior administrator for the hospital for 28 years and the chair of the Burke Wheelchair Games, was credited for these initiatives. Her strong and creative mind kept the Games alive during a time when competitive adaptive sports leagues and events were beginning to surface throughout the country.

“We’ve stayed true to our mission. We’ve never changed,” Sgaglio says. “We had the opportunity when adaptive sports really started to come into their own to change the Wheelchair Games into a major competition, but we chose not to and instead to keep it more about inclusion.”

The Burke Wheelchair Games now bestow the Maureen Ryan-Carr Award each year, presented to the athlete who best represents the Games’ spirit. 

Younger Participants

Today, Ryan-Carr’s vision of an all-inclusive community sporting event — with a small flair of competition — for people with disabilities still stands. One of the major differences about the Burke Wheelchair Games now is that they cater more to youth — the next generation — rather than adults. It’s a non-sanctioned event, free for spectators, that draws everyone from 5-year-olds to senior citizens.

“While the lack of participation by adults has increased, the kids now love it,” Mutter says. “The kids go crazy. They stick helmets on 5-year-olds and tell them to stay between the lines. They sometimes have a family member walk alongside them as they race, and everyone around them goes crazy. What more would a 5-year-old want? They’re in the spotlight.”

Funded by the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital and nearly 20 sponsors, the Games are now organized by a committee of the hospital’s employees — including Sgaglio — who volunteer on their own time to ensure the event runs smoothly across the board. With major companies such as Pepsi and Sodexo sponsoring the event, participants even receive meals, goodie bags and additional giveaways.

“It’s a well-oiled machine at this point because we’ve done it so many years, but we still get together every year to see how we can reach more athletes, better promote it and better the Games,” Sgaglio says.

Highlighting this year’s Burke Wheelchair Games will be the inaugural wheelchair basketball free-throw contest, while three-time Paralympic gold medalist Jennifer Johnson, who performed much of her career training at the Burke Rehabilitation Center, will oversee the table tennis competition. 

Although many people with disabilities around the country are now zoning in more on either highly competitive or veteran-related events, the Burke Wheelchair Games are looking to solidly hold their place for another year as one of the few regional all-inclusive adaptive sporting events in the nation.

 “It’s a celebration of disabilities,” Armento says. “We tell everyone to just come and participate. But if there’s a potential Paralympian in the midst that may not be ready to compete at that level yet, this can also be the perfect event for them.”

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