Jared Rehm and Nathan Waters came together in 2009 to establish the campus organization Adaptive Recreation and Athletics. The goal of the organization is to provide recreational opportunities for students, faculty and staff who have disabilities. Rehm played wheelchair basketball and tennis as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and was the first student to represent Auburn University in wheelchair tennis. When Rehm and Waters met in the Office of Accessibility, the two also combined efforts to start the Auburn University Wheelchair Basketball Team with the support of the Department of Kinesiology and the Office of Accessibility. This year marks the first time the Auburn team will compete in the intercollegiate division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
1. What brought you to Auburn University?
Rehm: I came to Auburn University to finish my bachelor's degree in philosophy after spending two years in Wisconsin playing wheelchair basketball and two years attending St. Joseph Seminary College. Once I decided the priesthood was not my calling, I chose Auburn to finish my degree because my father is an alumnus and raised me to be an Auburn fan, and the philosophy department is top-notch.
Waters: I grew up a big Auburn fan, coming to football, basketball and baseball games as a child. I have several family members who graduated from Auburn, and I have two degrees from the university. So naturally, when the opportunity to work for the Office of Accessibility was available, I jumped at the chance to make Auburn my home permanently. I am grateful every day that I get to live in such a wonderful town and work for such a great university.
2. How did the two of you come together to start a wheelchair basketball team at Auburn?
Rehm: I found out that the Office of Accessibility was looking into starting a wheelchair basketball program when I saw a sign for an exhibition during halftime of a men's basketball game. I walked into the office and met Nathan. I told him about my experience playing, and we started from there. I have always been a competitive person, and at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I was a member of a national championship team. I had to go more than 1,000 miles away from home to find that level of competition because the opportunity wasn't available in the South. I wanted to be sure the Auburn Family has that opportunity.
Waters: After we first met, Jared and I began traveling to wheelchair tennis tournaments together. The one thing I noticed was that we had to travel great distances for him to compete – Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Dallas, etc. There were not many close competitions. I was also introduced to many dedicated athletes at these events who train hours a day, all year round and travel across the country for competitions for very little recognition. They just want to compete. I realized how important it was for us to develop a program so that more athletes with disabilities could have opportunities to be student-athletes at the college level. I was fortunate enough to play junior college baseball and had several offers from schools in Alabama. I was shocked to find out that Jared and other athletes with disabilities only have about a dozen universities in the entire country where they can go to play tennis or basketball. On top of travel costs, sports wheelchairs cost thousands of dollars and most insurance companies will not cover the expense. These athletes do it for the love of the sport and the chance to compete. Witnessing their passion is what keeps me moving forward to advance the program at Auburn.
3. The wheelchair basketball team will compete in the intercollegiate division for the first time this year. What does that mean for the team?
Rehm: Competing in the intercollegiate division means not only a step up in the competition, but also a more authentic student-athlete experience for our team. Even though we aren't affiliated with the athletics department or the NCAA, our student-athletes will be competing against other university and college teams made up of student-athletes. It is a unique experience to play in those types of competitions.
Waters: This is a huge step forward for the program. We are being contacted by high school students from all over the country about the team. There are only seven other universities that have a team in the intercollegiate division. It is amazing to see all of the hard work of the Office of Accessibility and the Department of Kinesiology over the past three-and-a-half years pay off.
4. You co-teach an adaptive sports elective in the Department of Kinesiology. What can you tell us about the class?
Waters: Yes, KINE 3103, Adaptive Sports, is a new online elective that started in spring 2012. We developed this class as a tool to raise awareness of athletics for individuals with disabilities – not only for students who may be going into coaching, teaching or rehabilitation services, but for those people who don't know they are eligible to participate in some of these sports. The students who take this course learn some history of adaptive sports, rules, equipment and different types of disabilities. We started with 50 students that first semester and now we have 100 this fall.
Rehm: We've found that many people just do not know how many different opportunities are out there. Most people we talk to have heard about wheelchair basketball, but don't realize that people with disabilities are playing every sport there is – from soccer for the visually impaired to wheelchair rugby. This class is an eye-opener for most.
5. What do you hope to accomplish through your work with the Adaptive Recreation and Athletics program?
Rehm: Through this student organization we want to advocate for physical activity opportunities on campus for people with disabilities. We know that these opportunities don't just show up. Most of the time people aren't aware that sports and recreation are possible activities for people with disabilities. This includes many people with disabilities themselves. Because of this, we knew that in order to raise awareness and participation we needed to advocate for ourselves and that is what pushed us to create this group.
Waters: We want to continue our efforts in raising awareness about the needs of these individuals on campus. We would also like this group to grow beyond Auburn University, and we currently have community members involved who would not have the opportunity to participate in adaptive recreation without this organization. We are able to offer these opportunities through fundraising and participation in exhibitions.