Feeling fulfilled in her Paralympic career, four-time Paralympian Kaitlyn Verfuerth continues to give back to the adaptive athletics community through her roles as program specialist and wheelchair tennis coach at Ability 360’s Sports and Fitness Center.
While Verfuerth’s accomplishments speak for themselves, it is the journey she took to get there and the things she’s learned along the way that keeps her involved and wanting to give back to the adaptive sports community.
At 7 years old, Verfuerth was involved in a bad car accident. She was in the middle seat only wearing a seatbelt across her lap and due to impact, she was ejected from her seat and sustained severe damage to her spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.
“When I woke up (from being knocked unconscious) in the car my mom was covered in blood and my brother was unconscious. I knew I was close to God,” she said.
Soon after getting into rehabilitation from her injury, one of Verfuerth’s therapists told her about the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater’s wheelchair basketball program. It is one of the top programs in the country. She attended a camp hosted by the university where she was able to try multiple adaptive sports.
While she loved wheelchair basketball, she wanted to play a sport where she didn’t need a whole group of disabled people to play, so she turned to tennis.
She rose to the top of the wheelchair tennis world rather quickly. From the age of 17 on, for about 10 years, she was the top female wheelchair tennis player in the U.S. and top 8 in the world. In 2004, she made her first Paralympic appearance in Athens, finishing fourth in doubles and making it to the round of 16 in singles. She made two more Paralympic appearances in tennis in 2008 and 2016 with her best finish being fourth place in 2008 in the double’s competition. After 2016, Verfuerth and her husband moved from Flagstaff to the Phoenix metro area where she continued to pursue becoming a recreational therapist. She started working at Ability 360 while training for the Tokyo Games in paracanoe.
Verfuerth and others in the disability community are the type of people that Ability 360 strives to create an environment and opportunity to lead an active and meaningful lifestyle.
Nickolas Pryor, Ability 360’s athletics program manager and athlete on the amputee basketball team, is at the helm of making that environment and opportunity possible.
Pryor lost his leg in an accident when he was younger and joined Arizona State’s wheelchair basketball team when he moved to the state for school. He landed an internship at Ability 360 and has remained ever since. He hopes to use his role at Ability 360 to reinstate ASU’s wheelchair basketball team
“I am in the process of making an agreement between ASU and Ability 360,” he said. “There is no reason why students (especially those with disabilities) should go their entire college career not knowing about us. It’s unacceptable.’’
The agreement that he is trying to make with ASU would be one in which the students who already pay ASU’s fitness and wellness fee would be able to use Ability 360’s facility at no extra cost.
In addition to working on this partnership with ASU, Pryor also helped to launch a wheelchair football team in partnership with the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals, Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks’ willingness to sponsor the facility is what helps keep membership costs low.
“We need to get children (with disabilities) into adaptive sports much earlier than we do,” he said. “Research shows that the earlier they get involved they have a better quality of life. There should really be a pipeline between hospitals and rehabilitation centers to adaptive sports.”
Joe Underwood, Ability 360’s youth swim coach and athlete on the adult wheelchair basketball team, knows well the opportunities that early exposure to adaptive sports can bring.
The Phoenix native was born with Spina Bifida and began swimming in third grade and shortly after playing wheelchair basketball with the Phoenix Wheelchair Suns. He went on to swim for Desert Vista High School and the U.S. Paralympic National Team at a world championship in the summer of 2014. He stopped swimming shortly after to take a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball collegiately at the University of Missouri. In 2018, after graduating, he moved back to the Phoenix area and began coaching the youth swim team and playing basketball at Ability 360.
One of his motivators for returning was simply to give back. He knows that he was fortunate enough to be introduced to adaptive sports early in life and wants to continue to be a part of the growth of adaptive sports and the Paralympic movement. He hopes to see the day here in the U.S. where para-athletes are paid to play their sport just like the other pros are. This is something that countries like Germany have already begun doing.
“It’s going to take taking a chance,” Underwood said of the future of para-athletes receiving sponsorship money and other pay.
He noted that he doesn’t believe the notion that para-athletes aren’t marketable, and Toyota’s recent sponsorship campaign of Paralympians has shown that it is not true. He thinks there is even a possibility that para-athletes could be more marketable but admitted a huge perspective shift would need to happen here in the U.S.
While most people struggle with finding their identity at some point in their life, having a disability can make the struggle weigh heavier on a person. Robert Reed, coach of Ability360s youth wheelchair basketball team and player on the adult team, remembers his struggle with Muscular Dystrophy during his preteen and early teen years that caused him not to be in a great mental space dealing with a lot of depression and feeling alone in his situation.
When he got involved with adaptive sports his mental state improved as he saw he was not the only one dealing with a disability and saw people with disabilities driving, working, and getting married. Those are all things he thought he couldn’t do before.
His own experience made him realize kids are capable of much more than their parents believe.
“I know that I can’t tell the parents how to parent their children,” Reed said. “But I do what I can to drop the hints that will hopefully lead them to believing their child can do things.”
Though making para-sports more mainstream may seem like a huge undertaking, many within the Paralympic community agree that the current generation is up for tackling the challenge.
One of those young people include Ability 360’s own Mohamed Moalim. The 19-year-old originally from Somalia came to the U.S. from Malaysia in 2019. While living in Malaysia he was hit in the back by a stray bullet in 2011 at the age of 9. He went from playing soccer to being inactive for the span of 10 years from the incident until his arrival in the U.S. When he arrived here and began his rehabilitation, a therapist told him about Ability 360.
“It changed everything,” he said of finding out about Ability 360.
He had gone from an active lifestyle before his injury to being sedentary, something he had a hard time accepting as his reality. He now has a goal of playing collegiately and is currently being recruited by the University of Illinois and the University of Arizona. He is grateful for those offers and said it would mean everything to be a part of either team.
However, his aspirations don’t stop there. Even though the U.S. still needs work when it comes to promoting adaptive sports, once someone finds out they are available, a google search will point them to an organization in their area that offers many options. However, in Somalia and Malaysia, this is not the case and Moalim would like to change that. After finishing college, Moalim wants to go back to Somalia and Malaysia and help start to build a true infrastructure for adaptive sports.
“They (the people of Somalia and Malaysia) deserve it and I know they would benefit from it like I have,” he said.
His mother, Ms. Moalim is grateful her son was able to find Ability 360 and can tell the positive impact it has had on him.
“I didn’t know if he would like it (Ability 360), but after each practice I see his joy more and more and I am glad he hopes to share that joy with the people of Somalia and Malaysia,’’ she said.
Ability 360 is changing the lives of para-athletes, empowering them to achieve more than they or their family members would have ever thought to be possible.
Verfuerth hopes she can help carrying out Ability 360’s mission.
“This is all I have ever dreamed of doing. I love waking up knowing I am touching the lives of many every day,” Verfuerth said. “There’s no better place to work than here (Ability 360).”