Athlete of the Year: Sam Spore

Sam was born in East Africa with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. He received spinal and brain surgeries as an infant in Uganda. By the time he turned seven years old, his biological family was unable to continue caring for him. Sam lived at a children’s home near his village until his parents, Chad and Heidi Spore, adopted him at age twelve.

Mike holding his racquet and looking up as he tosses a tennis ball in the air to serve.

Athlete of the Year Candidate: Mike Hatfield

Michael Hatfield is another outstanding candidate for the 2022 Athlete of the Year Award. Mike was born in India and grew up in Cedar Rapids. He contracted polio in India. It affected his legs, and he has worn leg braces and used crutches since he learned how to walk; however, he never let that slow him down! Mike has always spent a lot of time outdoors through boy scouts, camping, and hiking. He went to college in Minneapolis and has worked as a licensed orthotist for the past 23 years. His wife is a registered nurse, and they have a young child at home. 

Mike became involved in Adaptive Sports Iowa when he met Mike Boone, the former director of ASI, at an event for orthotics and prosthetics and introduced him to ASI. Mike is always looking for ways to stay active, and he has been involved in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, ASI’s adaptive cycling team for RAGBRAI, and wheelchair football (briefly). Friendly and easy-going in nature, Mike describes his athletic style as competitive but recreational. He doesn’t want to hurt himself or others or get into silly arguments, but he does play to win!

Mike’s favorite program at ASI is the RAGBRAI team, hands down! He has been on the team for 6 years, and he points out that that’s enough years to have a different jersey to wear every day of the week after he receives this year’s jersey. He strongly believes that “every Iowan should complete RAGBRAI at least once in their life.” You can create great bonds and relationships with the other riders by spending the week with them, and it gives you the chance to meet people around the state with different paths in life and to experience “Iowa nice”. Mike says the RAGBRAI route is always both physically and mentally challenging, but for the best. He likes to bring a journal with him and find quiet time during the day, usually either early morning or after the ‘partying’ has calmed down, to recount his favorite parts of the day, memorable moments, challenges, etc. 

When asked about the greatest challenge in adaptive sports, Mike responded similarly to Joel in that it can be difficult to find enough people to make a full team (basketball); however, he made it clear that participating in ASI is very personally-fulfilling. There are lots of opportunities to give back to people by volunteering, teaching and giving demonstrations in clinics, raising awareness, etc. Mike says ASI has given him a better understanding of himself, which motivates him to continue to give back. The world is not as exclusive to people with physical disabilities as it was 20 years ago, and he does what he can to help continue to create an inclusive environment for future generations.

Adaptive sports have taught Mike a lot and have helped him develop greater patience and acceptance. Many of the barriers that people in chairs face don’t impact him since he can still walk independently, so playing sports in a chair makes him more appreciative of his own personal capabilities. It also gives him a unique perspective at his job when making prosthetics for patients. Every single person has abilities, though the level of impairment might change. Mike says you just have to learn to make the most of those abilities and the ability to change. One of Mike’s goals is to show other people with similar disabilities that they CAN do it! If he can get one person to fall in love with adaptive sports, he’s that much more appreciative. “We are breaking down barriers one step at a time so eventually it can become commonplace.” 

Mike would have made a great teacher, as he had a lot to say when asked what he would want the nondisabled population to know about people with disabilities and adaptive sports. He wants to encourage everyone to get out and try adaptive sports. He says it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not. Participating in adaptive sports gives you an entirely new perspective on sports in general. Adaptive sports are fun and everyone can enjoy them. In his experience, every time an able-bodied person tries an adaptive sport they talk about how much fun they had, and it connects you to new relationships you might not have expected. In addition, Mike doesn’t like when people call him ‘inspiring’ because this is just his normal life. He learned to walk with braces just as able-bodied people learned to walk without braces, and personally, he doesn’t find himself ‘inspiring’ for that. In a similar manner, he explained that just because you play adaptive sports, that doesn’t make it any more or less challenging. It’s just different and something you have to get used to. 

Thank you, Mike, for your positivity and encouragement! We appreciate all you do!

Joel is tossing up a tennis ball and getting ready to serve it over the net.

Athlete of the Year Candidate: Joel Fini

Coming up this fall, the director of Adaptive Sports Iowa will choose the ASI Athlete of the Year. Joel Fini, who participates in adult wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, and cycling through ASI, stood out as an outstanding athlete this year and is in the running for the award. Joel is a T7 paraplegic who was injured back in August of 1993. He works at Mediacom, and in his free time, he loves to kayak, fish, play pool (on his own and in tournaments), and ski.

Joel became involved in Adaptive Sports Iowa when someone approached him at his daughter’s basketball game and introduced him to the wheelchair sport. That was about 10 years ago, and Joel has been actively involved ever since. For him, adaptive sports are a way to stay active and to meet new people. “I firmly believe that activity is everything,” Joel says. He wants to stay active to maintain his health, and through the hours of practice and training together, the members of ASI really become a community. They celebrate each others’ victories and are there through the difficulties of life. By maintaining their physical activity, the ASI participants keep their social lives busy, as well. 

In addition to the ASI family, Joel gets to participate with his daughter. She has come to almost every wheelchair basketball and tennis practice. While she is not an everyday wheelchair user herself, Callison is adept at adaptive sports and can easily maneuver a sports chair. Joel’s favorite memories as he looks back on his years of participation are all the times he has gotten to participate in RAGBRAI as a family. “I’ve ridden with my daughter for seven years,” he says, “you can’t put a price on that.” 

One of Joel’s favorite adaptive sports is wheelchair tennis. He likes that a big team isn’t needed to play, and he can really push himself to work hard and make improvements. Adaptive Sports Iowa is only in its second season of wheelchair tennis, but Joel is present at almost every practice. He has the goal to participate in a tennis tournament and win the entire thing! He loves competition and having something to work towards, so this goal is in no way out of reach for Joel to achieve.

As a very independent individual, Joel wants to remind the nondisabled population to not always assume that someone needs or wants help. Most people with physical impairments are very independent, and asking to help can seem condescending at times. When asked about the biggest challenge in adaptive sports, he stated that for team sports, it’s hard to recruit enough participants. During the wheelchair basketball season, there are usually only enough players for one 3 on 3 game, which limits the game in some aspects. That’s why he enjoys tennis so much. He wants to encourage anyone with a disability to not be afraid to try. “If you want to do something, give it a shot. You might fail, but at least you tried. That’s the important thing.”

Thank you, Joel, for all the hard work and time you’ve put into Adaptive Sports Iowa!

Athlete of the Year Candidate: AJ Fitzpatrick

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!