Adaptive Athletics more than just sports to staff, students


Athletes shake hands before their tennis match at the Memorial Park Tennis Center on Oct. 6. Tournaments are a regular part of the program to get athletes to compete and be social. | Courtesy of Adaptive Athletics

Carlos Salinas cannot climb out of bed and run out the door anymore. Before his accident, Salinas used to pride himself in taking just 10 minutes to get dressed and ready every morning.

Salinas, a supply chain and logistics technology senior, now takes more than an hour to prepare for his day due to the loss of mobility in his legs.

Most days are hard for him to face. His disability means many often act with prejudice or think of Salinas as just a wheelchair, and that is hard to deal with, he said. But now, years after his accident, he has finally found something that makes his life more satisfying.

Salinas participates in Adaptive Athletics, a student organization that not only connected him with people in chairs like himself, but also showed him a world of possibilities he did not know existed for someone in with a disability like himself.

The program aims to connect students with disabilities to sports programs and social interactions to help them participate in society.

“The two best indicators to determine if someone is going to find vocational employment are sports participation and education,” said founder and director of Adaptive Athletics Michael Cottingham, who is disabled from the waist down. “Our goal is really to merge those two things, so we actively support students on campus with participating in disability sport, but we also focus on helping people in the metro Houston area matriculate through the educational process.”

With a team, Cottingham built a program that brings together students with spinal injuries to play sports like wheelchair rugby and tennis. Although it is a sports program, the goal for Cottingham is to support young men like Salinas.

Getting a grip

Salinas had just graduated high school when he got in his car to drop off some friends 11 years ago. Instead of driving as he usually did, he let a friend take the wheel on a rainy day in Spring, a Houston suburb.

Everything was going fine until his friend ran a red light and skidded away from traffic into a tree, which hit Salinas full force.

“I don’t remember the pain. I don’t,” Salinas said. “The only thing I remember is waking up and seeing my family. I was in and out of sleep all day, and when I finally got a grip, I asked the doctor to untie my legs and let me leave.”

When the doctors told Salinas that he was paralyzed, it was hard for him to accept that he would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life, he said.

“I told them to euthanize me,” Salinas said. “I didn’t want to live my life like that. My future was over, and I didn’t want to live in this world.”

Salinas said programs like Adaptive Athletics have helped him feel hope for the future and his ability to contribute in society.

“The people in this world that you surround yourself with give you strength to move forward — believe it or not,” Salinas said. “These people have done nothing but help me get through this.”

Success through tennis

Adaptive Athletics co-founder Serjio Brereda got together with some friends and asked Cottingham to help create the organization, citing a lack of programs available at UH at the time. Cottingham started the program with the students almost five years ago.

“Me and a couple of other students just saw that there was a need to have some sort of camaraderie among (students with disabilities),” Brereda said. “We thought sports was the best way to do that, so we created the Adaptive Athletics student organization.”

The program aims to create a support network for students with disabilities trough sports, which can lead to a better life and gainful employment for the athletes, Cotttingham said.

“Nationwide employment for people from 22 to 62 — what we consider prime working age — people without disabilities is roughly 93.5 percent employment,” Cottingham said. “There is only an 18 percent employment rate for wheelchair users. Less than one-in-five.”

It jumps up to 60 percent for those who participate in a disability sport, Cottingham said.

The wheelchair tennis team practices on campus, while the rugby teams joins with the city’s program. Salinas said the public exposure of the team on campus helps him feel like he belongs in society.

“Not too many people know what it is to be stuck in a chair for the rest of your life,” Salinas said. “For people to actually get to feel and know the person as an individual rather than by just the chair, it closes the gap between people with disabilities and those who haven’t stepped foot in their world.”

Adaptive Athletics is not part of the Athletics Department; rather, it’s a student-run organization that also participates in sports.

The program hopes to gain resources to become bigger and better by hosting tournaments like rugby and tennis. The disabilities program also provides scholarships for student-athletes and wants to grow but currently lacks adequate funds.

“We’re hoping in the next couple of years to get a center at the University,” Brerada said. “That’s a big deal for a student organization, because that would mean more funding. And that’s the problem we face right now, is that we’re running on a small, small budget.”

Working toward a goal

Both sports aren’t meant to make the athlete feel relaxed. They are tough and competitive, requiring a fierce will to win and the ability to take a hit or two.

Adaptive tennis is played on a regulation court with no modification to the rackets or balls. The only difference is that players get two bounces of the ball before it has to be hit, instead of one, according to the website.

Wheelchair rugby is a team contact sport with players who have a combination of impaired upper and lower extremities. Most players suffer from a cervical spinal cord injury and have some sort of quadriplegia, Cottingham said.

Salinas said the only requirement to join is a desire to participate in Adaptive Athletics. The students teach one another about the sport and learn as they go; there is no expectation for the athletes to be superstars.

The tennis team sent a delegation to the collegiate national championships last year, finishing third behind Alabama and Arizona.

Out of his shell

For Salinas, Adaptive Athletics is also a way to feel normal again in the face of constant judgement from the outside world.

“It brought me out of my shell,” Salinas said. “When you are in a chair, you don’t really want to mingle just because they may see you differently. When you are there, you feel like you can interact with everyone. It brings out the best in you. Their people bring out the best in me. Mentally, it’s moved me in the right direction.”

He used to play all kinds of sports before his accident. From basketball to baseball and tennis, Salinas considered himself an athlete before the accident. Now he plays the only sport he never tried before his accident, and he loves it even more.

Salinas isn’t the only wheelchair athlete benefiting from the program. Health and human performance student Juan Perez also enjoys the Adaptive Athletics experience after going to the program for a year.

“I’ve learned about unity between the players, friendships and about how to exercise my muscles,” Perez said. “It’s my therapy session — my free zone.”

The program hosted a tennis tournament at the Memorial Park Tennis Center on Oct. 6-8 and has plans for another in the beginning of November, Cottingham said. The biggest focus for the former wheelchair tennis and basketball star is showing students that they can be and do whatever they want.

“Research shows us for us to be successful, it helps to see someone that looks like us in a successful position or someone we want to be like,” Cottingham said “Seeing Perry White, who was a lawyer in Birmingham and in a wheelchair, I said, ‘Wow, I can do whatever I want.’ If you see someone that looks like you succeed, it opens up a lot of doors psychologically.”

Christina Soukis contributed reporting.

[email protected]

Leave a Comment