During Tuesday’s opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, the words “#WeThe15” at one point lit up the floor of Tokyo Olympic Stadium. It’s the slogan for a campaign launched during these Games that’s meant to draw attention to the 15% of the world’s population who have a disability. That’s an estimated 1.2 billion people.
What Shelby Jensen wants to know is, where are all of them?
Jensen, a Millcreek native, will compete over the next two weeks in wheelchair fencing. The sport has instilled the 20-year-old with confidence, allowed her to travel to far-off places and become central to her life goals for at least the next decade. And she’d like to see it, or another adaptive sport, do the same for others like her.
She said it’s imperative to the vitality of sports like wheelchair fencing — which she said has less than 10 elite-level competitors — but also to the vitality of people with disabilities.
“I just want to see more people come into the sport because this sport has been around for a long time, but it’s not really made its debut,” she said.
She added, “I want people to experience that and have that love for it.”
Central to the issue, Jensen believes, is that not enough people know about adaptive sports opportunities and programs that are available, especially in the Salt Lake Valley.
Her mother, Sheri Jensen, can attest to that.
After Shelby had two strokes at age 7 that partially paralyzed her right side, Sheri said she didn’t receive any information on adaptive sports. It wasn’t until Shelby’s doctor at Utah Neuro Rehab pointed them to Wasatch Adaptive Sports, which runs programs for cycling and paddle boarding in the summer and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, that the world of adaptive sports began to open to them.
“There are [many programs], but people don’t know about them,” she said. “We didn’t hear about them, even after she had her stroke.”
The Jensens now are collaborating with the Utah Fencing Foundation, a nonprofit that pays for most of Shelby’s gear and international travel expenses, to distribute chairs and hold clinics wherever possible. Jed Jensen even plans to drive to Idaho to drop off a fencing chair for a 7-year-old girl who has shown a strong interest in the sport.
And Shelby works for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation’s adaptive branch when she isn’t competing. It’s based out of the Copperview Recreation Center in Midvale, where Tokyo Paralympic wheelchair basketball player Ali Ibanez got her start with the Salt Lake Wrecking Crew. That youth team has since become part of the Neuroworx Adaptive Sports Program in Sandy and is now called the Utah Rush.
But there are plenty of other organizations offering adaptive sports programs and camps in the Salt Lake Valley. Some, like the University of Utah’s TRAILS program, cater more to adults. Others, like Park City’s National Ability Center provide camps for all ages and abilities
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some programs to be paused. That includes the VA Salt Lake City’s annual recreation fair, which has offered experiences in adaptive rock climbing, kayaking and other sports since 2016.
Sheri Jensen said in most cases programs are offered free or at a low cost.
Here are a few organizations that provide adaptive sport opportunities in and around the Wasatch Front:
National Ability Center: Founded in 1985 in Park City, but with bases in Salt Lake City and Moab, its goal is “building self-esteem, confidence and lifetime skills through sport, recreation and educational programs.” It welcomes people of all physical and mental abilities and offers programs, camps and outings in everything from climbing to water skiing to snow skiing, cycling and archery.
Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation: Mostly youth-centric, its adaptive division provides a wide range of sports and teams, from baseball to hockey to track and field. Its disability pass provides free access to parks and rec facilities for a person with a disability and one assistant.
University of Utah’s TRAILS (Technology, recreation, access, independence, lifestyle, sports): The program arm of the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, TRAILS provides free activities to people with physical disabilities. Among its offerings are cross country skiing, sailing, tennis and swimming.
Utah Fencing Foundation: A 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to growing the sport of fencing in all forms.
Utah Foundation for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Offers goalball camps for blind and sighted kids in the seventh through 12th grades. Goalball practices have been tabled because of the coronavirus, according to the foundation’s website.
Wasatch Adaptive Sports: Established in 1977 and based out of Murray and Snowbird Resort, this 501c3 nonprofit aims to “provide affordable recreational and educational opportunities for children, adults and veterans to share with their support network or family.” Its programs include skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and biking and paddle boarding in the summer.