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Adaptive sports signal a new era for excellence and inclusion

Meet four athletes who break down barriers and build a culture of acceptance in sports.

To hear from the featured para athletes in an audio version of this story, listen now:

After Femita Ayanbeku lost her right leg in a car accident at 11 years old, she thought sports weren’t going to be part of her life. Then, when she was 23, her prosthetist mentioned there would be a running clinic in town, and asked her if she wanted to get fitted for a running blade, which is a curved prosthetic limb amputee runners use. At the clinic in Boston, Ayanbeku fell in love with running.

“When I walk, I think about every step I take. But when I’m running, I just feel free.” — Femita Ayanbeku

Ayanbeku is now a two-time Paralympic sprinter — having competed in Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020 — and sits on the board of directors for The Born to Run Foundation, which provides specialized prosthetics to young adults and children. She is currently training for the 2024 Paris Paralympics, where she hopes to bring a new spectator — her first child. 

“[With] everything that I’ve been doing prior to getting pregnant and training through my pregnancy,” she says, “I feel like I’m ready to do something amazing.”

A female amputee athlete wearing a running blade crouches to the ground in preparation for a run.
Femita Ayanbeku prepares for a run around the track.

Adaptive sports or parasports are sports modified or created to accommodate individuals with disabilities. At any level, they’re beneficial for participants’ physical, mental, and social health. However, there are often barriers to participation, according to a study from the Global Sport Institute, including a lack of information, expensive equipment, and long travel times to the nearest program.

“When you don’t have access to those things, it completely cuts out a part of your life that you think you can’t have,” Ayanbeku says. “It takes [people away from things] that they don’t even know that they’re capable of. If I never got that blade, I would have never known that I had this potential to be who I am today.”

Getting back in the game

“I honestly didn’t know parasports existed for the first year that I was disabled,” says Haley Carroll, a high school senior in Massachusetts who has used a wheelchair for several years due to a connective tissue disease and neurological disorder. 

One day, Carroll saw a TikTok of someone playing wheelchair tennis. She tracked down a wheelchair tennis program run by the South Coast Wheelchair Tennis Foundation at a local YMCA . Then she started competing in wheelchair track for her high school team and a team through Adaptive Sports New England, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing participation in sports for people with disabilities.

“I’ve gained strength in all the places that I can, and that feels really good,” Carroll says. “It shows you how much you’re capable of physically.”

A teenage girl with long dark brown hair (Haley Carroll) wearing a sleeveless pink floral dress and a dainty necklace sits in a tennis wheelchair with her hands folded in her lap. The background is a vibrant green forest landscape.
Haley Carroll poses in her tennis wheelchair.

When Vaughn Pfeffer first got invited to a game of pickup wheelchair basketball, he was nervous that he wouldn’t love it the way he had loved playing traditional sports before an aortic dissection and spinal cord stroke in 2021 paralyzed him from the waist down. But when he got to the court in Providence, he was surprised by the level of competition, physicality, and enjoyment he found.

“I finally felt like I was able to excel in something sports-related again,” Pfeffer says. “It brought a sense of normalcy. It brought camaraderie. It brought teamwork. It brought some trash talk. It brought everything that I needed.” 

From there, Pfeffer’s strong throwing arm earned him a position as quarterback for the New England Patriots wheelchair football team.

Vaughn Pfeffer shares a joyful moment with his teammate.

Pfeffer encourages anyone to give adaptive sports a try. “Nobody judges. Everyone appreciates the fact that you show up. Everyone has done it, everyone has shown up by themselves,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to dive in, and we’ll take care of you.”

Creating a level playing field

Despite being born without a left leg and hip, Nico Calabria has played soccer on crutches since he was five. “I had to be creative about the way that I played the game in order to be competitive in an integrated setting,” he says. When he went to play amputee soccer, suddenly, he was one of the fastest people on the field. Calabria is now the captain of the U.S. Amputee Soccer team, which competed in the Amputee Football World Cup in 2022.

An amputee soccer player wearing crutches and the number 13 on his jersey leaps into the air to headbutt the ball.
Nico Calabria heads the ball in the 2022 Amputee World Cup Qualifying Tournament against Mexico.

Calabria is also the founder and captain of the New England Revolution Amputee Soccer team, part of a regional league building more access to amputee soccer for the next generation. “They can still play in an integrated setting,” he notes, “but there’s also opportunities to play on these level playing fields.” The choice is left up to each individual athlete with a disability; they can decide to play in a mixed setting with both non-disabled athletes and athletes with amputations or to play exclusively amongst those with amputations so that they have a fair and equal chance of performing well in the game. 

When Calabria is off the field, you can find him leading tailored disability education lessons at schools and businesses as the lead educator for the Bionic Project. He often brings kids together to play adaptive sports at the end of their school presentations. “We find that the experience of being able to play together really solidifies the ideas that we talked about,” he says. “You can tell people to be inclusive, and you can tell people a story about disability, but play is such a powerful experience for children.”

Expanding inclusivity 

Up to one in four adults in the United States have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Plus, whether through injury or aging, “Disability is something that we will all experience,” Calabria says. “Doing some research to learn more about [accessibility for people with disabilities] and adaptive sports can be a really powerful way of being actively more inclusive.”

And if you’re a sports fan, “Come check it out.” Calabria adds. “You can have an idea about what adaptive sports are like in your head, but it changes when you see it in person.” 

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.