Five high school athletes competed in the 400m wheelchair event at Drake Relays on April 29. This was the second year that the Relays held a wheelchair event, and the students even had the chance to meet some Paralympic athletes, who competed following the high school race. Get to know the Drake Relays participants…
Around September every year, the director of Adaptive Sports Iowa chooses the ASI Athlete of the Year. AJ Fitzpatrick, one of the three graduating seniors from the Grizzlies Youth Wheelchair Basketball Team stood out as an outstanding athlete this season. AJ is planning on attending University of Wisconsin – Whitewater to major in exercise science. He loves anatomy and learning about the intricacies of the human body and someday hopes to become a physical therapist. AJ will continue his basketball career on Whitewater’s thirteen-time national championship men’s wheelchair basketball team.
Although Adaptive Sports Iowa acquired the Grizzlies just last year, AJ has been playing with the team for 5 years and an additional 2 years before that with an adult group at a local church in Cedar Rapids. The Grizzlies have grown close over the years of hard work, long practices, and weekend trips to play in regional tournaments. This April, the Grizzlies played in the NWBA National Wheelchair Basketball Varsity Tournament. Last year, the team was ranked #2 but did not go to nationals due to COVID-19 restrictions. The team lost two key players since then and still finished 9th in the nation! Between the Grizzlies’ games at nationals this year, AJ was invited to play on a D1 team, the Milwaukee Bucks, with his coach, Derrick Bisnett, and competed against his two favorite professional athletes, Patrick Anderson and Steve Serio. AJ admits he was fangirling a little bit, and after the game, he got to talk to his heroes and received a signed photograph.
As a new program for Adaptive Sports Iowa, there were a few challenges on the Grizzlies team this season. AJ stated the biggest hurdle for the Grizzlies is recruiting new players. Currently, players travel as far as 2 hours every weekend to make it to practices in Tiffin on Saturdays. Next year, with AJ, Koda and Jenna graduating, the team will be young. AJ wants his team to do well, and he would love to see enough players participating to make a prep team in addition to the varsity team to give younger athletes a chance to compete. He was proud of how the team placed at nationals and of how the players have improved throughout the season. In particular, he called out Jayden and Aiden for their hard work and growth as athletes, and he can’t wait to watch what they do in the coming years.
At first AJ wasn’t sure if he would attend college or trade school after graduation. Playing wheelchair basketball opened doors for him, and suddenly he was being looked at by college coaches. Multiple colleges in the Midwest were recruiting AJ for their wheelchair basketball teams before he made his final decision. For him, it was really between SMSU and UW – Whitewater. AJ chose Whitewater because it is closer to family and it felt like home; however, it was a tough decision since the two key players from the Grizzlies’ previous team now play for SMSU. The two teams will be going head-to-head next season, and AJ will be competing against his former teammates!
Whether in-season or out-of-season, AJ spends a lot of time training outside of team practices and games. He has some buddies that go to the weight room with him to build upper body strength for the season. He has also worked with a trainer in Cedar Rapids for personalized training plans and goes to the local YMCA to work on his basketball skills whenever he can. In the past, AJ has gone to multiple basketball and adaptive sports camps. Colleges with wheelchair basketball teams usually put on summer camps to train the next generation of players and to scout for talent, and different organizations put on sports camps as outreach to get kids with disabilities to try some of the many opportunities available to them. This year, AJ will be attending the wheelchair basketball camp at UW – Whitewater with his team. AJ is dedicated to his basketball game and has big goals for his future. He will be signing up for a U23 (ages 23 and under) team in preparation to try out for the USA Paralympic team in 2024. We’re excited to follow AJ’s success in the future!
Playing wheelchair basketball has left a strong impact on AJ. “It’s gotten me out there more. I’m definitely more social than I had been before… this has helped me get out there and meet new people,” he says, “It makes me feel normal… it lets me prove to other people that I can do this and I can be an athlete.” What AJ wants others to know is that wheelchair athletes don’t need to be treated differently, they are just like anyone else. “We can do anything you guys can do. We might have to make some modifications, but we can still do it,” AJ states. His mom added, “I think there’s a common misconception that wheelchair sports are somehow easier, when in fact it is not. It is much harder.” AJ’s advice to kids with disabilities is to just reach out. Network with other people with disabilities and try everything possible. Show up to practices; competing isn’t required, so just try it and have fun!
Good luck, AJ, and thank you for all your hard work you’ve put in for the Grizzlies!