One of the best parts of my job as a curator at the museum is to develop exhibitions. To come up with an idea, collect objects, and write the script in order to tell a story that is important not only to me but to the donors, museum staff, and the public is one of the most rewarding aspects of museum work. I am happy to have helped create a new exhibition on adaptive sports titled Everyone Plays! Sports and Disabilities. The last day to see it is March 26, 2017, and I hope you get a chance to come by.
I have been collecting adaptive sports equipment for a few years now. It was great to have the opportunity to collect more objects in order to tell the story of adaptive sports in America and how so many athletes with disabilities are excelling in sports. It was also great to talk to the donors about their experiences in adaptive sports and the ways in which they were able to adapt their equipment to their specific needs. Their personal stories included adversity, frustration, elation, triumph, personal growth, and plenty of innovation.
Must-see object #1: the mono ski
While a soldier in Vietnam, Jim Martinson lost both of his legs in a land mine explosion. An avid athlete before his injuries, Martinson soon began competing in wheelchair sports. His struggle on the ski slopes, however, turned him into an adaptive sports innovator. Martinson's paralysis made it difficult to use a mono ski, so he developed the "sit ski." This innovative ski equipment allows the user to ride the chairlift without assistance. Martinson went on to win a gold medal at the 1992 Winter Paralympics in Albertville, France. In 2009, at 63, he became the oldest athlete to compete in the Mono-Ski Cross at the Winter X Games.
Unfortunately the museum was not able to acquire one of Martinson's sit skis, but we were able to collect the predecessor to his invention—the mono ski. Although cumbersome to operate alone, it was used to teach many skiers with disabilities to enjoy the slopes again. It was manufactured by GDL, one of the many companies of the 1970s to produce sporting equipment for the growing need of athletes with physical disabilities. The mono ski on display in Everyone Plays! was used by the Adaptive Sports Association in Durango, Colorado, to teach skiing. The pair of outriggers used with the mono ski were adapted by cutting off ski tips and attaching a crutch to help the user steer. Retrofitting existing technology was often the easiest way to create adaptive equipment. Sports equipment manufacturers began producing adaptive equipment in the 1970s and 1980s to satisfy the growing demands of the adaptive sports industry.
Must-see object #2: Amy Purdy's Snowboard Cross prosthetic sockets and feet
At 19, Amy Purdy suffered septic shock as a result of meningococcal meningitis and, due to loss of circulation, had both legs amputated below the knee. Only two years later, Purdy competed in the USASA National Snowboarding Championship and medaled in three events. In 2005 she cofounded Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization that helps athletes with disabilities become involved in action sports. Purdy was the only double amputee to compete in the Paralympics, through which she won the bronze medal in snowboarding at the 2014 Sochi Games.
Prosthetics have made huge advancements over the years, allowing athletes to perform specialized tasks with enhanced agility. New manufacturing techniques and computer imaging allow for better fitted, custom prosthesis.
Must-see object #3: Buddy Elias's snowboard with crutch rig
In 2000 Buddy Elias had his leg amputated below the knee due to Buerger's disease, an inflammatory disease of the blood vessels which can lead to reduced circulation in the extremities. Elias chose to adapt his snowboard equipment to fit his changing physical needs. Elias is now a double amputee and uses a wheelchair while he grinds curbs with that chair as if it were a snowboard or skateboard.
Buddy crafted the snowboard on display with a crutch rig by using materials he bought at a local hardware store.
Must-see object #4: Chris Douglas's hockey sled
Chris Douglas, a member of the 2015 USA Sled Hockey team, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that left his spine underdeveloped. He led a relatively active childhood until he was paralyzed after a corrective spinal cord surgery in March 2001. As a result, his involvement with adaptive sports didn't begin until 2011, at age 19. He found that he had to play catch-up with the younger, more experienced athletes, constantly fine-tuning his equipment to be competitive. Adaptive athletes are often required to adapt their equipment to their specific needs, becoming unexpected innovators and advocates for technological advancements. Douglas helped his team win the gold at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sled Hockey World Championship.
Douglas made the custom hockey sled on display and used it to try out for the Paralympic hockey team in 2015. During the game, he is strapped into the sled and uses the shortened hockey sticks with spikes on one end to propel himself across the ice. The flat end of the stick is used to push the puck over the ice.
Bonus object that isn't on display: Susan Tait's "Gone Skiing" print
We didn't have room to display this print in the exhibition, but I wanted to include it here. "Gone Skiing," by artist and adaptive sports ski instructor Susan Tait, illustrates the explosive growth of adaptive sports organizations over the last 30 years, providing athletes with disabilities with the opportunity to participate in sports.
The story of adaptive sports involves many aspects of technology and innovation, but at its heart it is the athletes who make the difference. I was happy to be able to tell a few of these stories and look forward to collecting more objects from other adaptive athletes whose impact on their sports will be just as great as the athletes represented here.
Jane Rogers is an associate curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She recommends you check out Ray Werner's basketball objects, which were the catalyst for the display. Werner was one of the first participants in the adaptive sports movement.