TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s 5:30 a.m., and the first practice is already in full swing. The sun isn’t even up yet, but the weight room has been going for a while.
The sights and sounds are what you would expect of a high-profile training facility, with the buzz of activity almost continuous on the University of Alabama campus. There’s music blaring in the background, intense drills being run as part of conditioning, and visitors coming and going on a regular basis.
“The slogan for here is ‘Where legends are made’. That’s a real thing,” Arinn Young, a freshman, said between workout sessions.
“You want to come out and be one of them — show people that Alabama athletes, you don’t want to mess with. We’re the best of the best.”
A casual glance confirms that status. In addition to the coaches, assistant coaches, trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches who can be found every day in Stran-Hardin Arena, there are championship banners hanging on the walls and rings worn with pride.
They almost seem familiar, especially considering the Crimson Tide’s well-established success in other sports such as football. The gridiron draws a lot more attention, but the expectations are similar.
“It’s really hard to defend a title,” said Young’s teammate, Rosalie LaLonde. “It’s hard to explain. It’s like if you lost last year, you really want to get that title.
“I don’t want to think about last year. It’s like last year never happened.”
LaLonde then turned her wheelchair and went back to work, trying to add a little something that could help Alabama’s growing powerhouse known as Adapted Athletics.
The program was founded in 2003, and the Crimson Tide won women’s basketball national titles in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2017, with the men breaking though in 2013 and the wheelchair tennis team winning championships in 2013, 2015 and 2017.
They’re looking to add to the total this week. While most Alabama students have headed out of town for spring break, the Crimson Tide are in Marshall, Minn., of all places. The rural southwest part of the state, about a 3-hour drive from the Twin Cities, is where the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament begins Thursday.
“I feel like Alabama is being treated like the underdog again even though we won it last year,” Young said. “I love being the underdog.
“It’s just a ‘who wants it more’ kind of thing.”
But with a new facility that isn’t too different from what the more mainstream Crimson Tide athletic programs have, Alabama’s Adapted Athletics already scored a huge win this year.
“That’s the goal,” program director Brent Hardin said. “We’re a long way from that, but we’ve also come a long way.”
From nothing to something
When Hardin and his wife Margaret Stran were hired by the school, it wasn’t with the aim of building arguably the most successful Adapted Athletics program in the nation. This was a bonus project, and they volunteered their time to start a woman’s team in 2003.
“I told them what I wanted to do, but I don’t think they believed me,” Hardin said about the school officials. “We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have any chairs. We didn’t have any students. We didn’t have any money.”
But they got a grant for some chairs. They found some wheelchair-bound students who were interested in forming a team and then landed another grant to travel. Despite not being very good, Alabama made its debut at the national tournament and has been going back ever since.
As for the facilities, that took a lot more time, work and patience.
The first home for Alabama’s wheelchair basketball teams was Foster Auditorium, the National Historic Landmark that was restored in 2011 to be the permanent setting for volleyball and women’s basketball, which has since moved back into Coleman Coliseum.
Displaced by the renovation, it was off to the REC Center, where the teams were able to use the same courts, locker rooms and facilities as the general student body, but were also sort of at the mercy of others every day. For example, they had to be let into the building before and after it closed. Someone had to unlock the chairs every day. There were often scheduling issues. They had to clear out for events.
The athletes sort of felt like guests at their own school. Similar to playing on a court that wasn’t quite regulation size, it was workable but not ideal.
The “pipe dream,” as veteran player James Cook put it, was for Adapted Athletics eventually to have its own home, something no other collegiate program enjoyed. So even when the plans came together following a significant donation from alumni Mike and Kathy Mouron, many still had a cautious “I’ll believe it when I see it” approach.
The $10 million multipurpose facility, located on the south façade of the REC Center, was dedicated in January.
“You can go to a local city and it takes three months to fill a pothole,” Brown said. “This went up quickly. Even so, I didn’t know if it would be something I would be able to experience.
“It’s huge [for the players]. I always like to say that I had no problem practicing at the REC Center. I was glad to be here and I was glad to be at practice every day and in the gym. But this is over the top, more than anything I could have expected, wished for.”
From the locker rooms to the observation areas looking down over the court, the entire building was constructed with the athletes in mind.
As for what’s the best thing about Stran-Hardin Arena, which is named after the program founders, they’re in full agreement:
“It’s just our own,” said Sean Burns, who was on the 2013 team.
Everyone has a story
From genetic issues to a paralysis-causing virus, each person associated with the program has a story.
Freshman Avery Downing was an up-and-coming gymnast in the Memphis area who suffered a spinal cord injury. Sports always had been a part of her life, and when she started looking at colleges the chance to compete again played a crucial role in choosing Alabama.
“I was kind of something that was missing,” she said.
Cook suffered a spinal burst fracture and permanent paralysis of his lower extremities as a result of a rollover accident at Virginia Tech. He had been interested in a military career, but after completing his ROTC commitments he instead is finishing up his Ph.D. in Tuscaloosa.
“For what I wanted to do for automotive research it was easily the nicest facilities I had seen,” he said about Alabama’s engineering department, but added: “I love playing sports. I’ve always played sports.”
Many aren’t just competing at the collegiate level, either. Roughly half of the program’s athletes comefrom other countries and play on their national teams.
During the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, there were more than 20 former Crimson Tide athletes and coaches participating. Four helped the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams win gold medals, and active player Babsi Gross won a silver with Germany.
The University of Alabama is proud to have one of our own former athletes competing in the 2018 Winter… https://t.co/z08SZWALne
— UA Adapted Athletics (@alabamaadapted) March 9, 2018
“I always wanted to play in college,” Gross said. “In Germany if you study, the connection between sports and the universities is almost impossible. It’s two different institutions. The support for adaptive sports is not very big. So I had to work, go to school and train, which was hard to manage.
“Here your day is completely different because you can concentrate on sports and on [school].”
Now one of her teammates is LaLonde, a French-Canadian from Quebec who never thought she would speak English, never mind move to America to play basketball.
“It changed my life,” she said.
While Australian National Team member Michael Auprince calls wheelchair basketball “a stepping stone to everything I want to do,” his teammate Rashad Bennett has a very different take on the sport.
He grew up in nearby Birmingham, and finding a way that he could compete and participate in something just like everyone else meant everything to him.
“It made me feel equal to everyone else,” he said. “When you play sports and you can’t move like the other kids it’s kind of sad.”
However, they both like the physical nature of wheelchair basketball. Auprince politely refers to it as “Chess on wheels,” but there’s still a sort of demolition derby aspect to it, especially considering the speeds the athletes can get up to while zipping around on durable steel frames.
“It’s great,” Auprince said. “The front of my chair has been welded so many times it’s not even funny. It’s a full-contact sport, which people don’t realize. Basketball [in general] is kind of a contact sport. But there’s a lot more contact. You’re allowed to physically stop chairs.
“I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had too many serious injuries, but you always hear about some really bad things, broken arms, concussions, broken fingers. A couple of guys have even broken their legs. Don’t know how.”
Bennett added with a grin: “It’s my favorite part. I don’t get injured a lot, I do the injuring.”
Regardless, with an overall record of 23-3, the Alabama men are considered the team to beat in Marshall, having earned the national tournament’s No. 1 seeding for the first time. It’s something they hope becomes a trend.
At 18-5, the women are No. 2, and as Morwenna Hastings, a freshman from Great Britain, pointed out, “It’ll be intense because we all want it so bad.”
After all, it’s Alabama — and championships will be on the line.
“That’s the challenge for me, to prove that we are Alabama,” Bennett said. “That we are the No. 1 team.”
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