A long, long time ago in a city only three hours away, the University of Illinois at Galesburg began a highly specialized program in competitive sports: the University of Illinois Gizz Kids. The man who was the catalyst in this proactive movement in wheelchair sports was Timothy J. Nugent (affectionately known as Sarge-uh). The program evolved to include a wide variety of sports ranging from: archery, basketball, bowling, cheerleading and football to swimming, table tennis, and square dancing with the intent to allow students with disabilities to not only achieve academically, but also to participate in related extracurricular activities offered to their able-bodied classmates.
The first Gizz Kid athletes were awakened at the crack of dawn to do calisthenics, then go through a full day of classes, followed by practice, practice, practice. These athletes were members of the first collegiate wheelchair basketball team in the country, and a charter member of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (formed in 1949). Their first competitors, were able-bodied individuals who played exhibition games in wheelchairs. The wheelchairs were 50lb Everest & Jennings (E & J) Standard model chairs made from lightweight chrome plated steel, naugahyde upholstery, sporty hard rubber tires, feather-light sheet metal spoke guards, and even had supportive, fixed armrests and footrests.
The Gizz Kids went on to compete in the first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT) which was hosted by the U of I at Galesburg. From 1948 to 1970 the Gizz Kids finished in the top four of the NWBT 13 times and won the National Championship on three occasions–their first in 1953. Throughout the years, the University of Illinois was at the forefront of wheelchair technology development to enhance participation in sport. The “Illinois Wheel”, a pneumatic tire which improved speed, traction, and maneuverability was developed. In 1967, a new, lightweight sports chair made from stainless steel was developed with Stainless Medical Products, Inc. which led to two back-to-back NWBA National championship titles for the Gizz Kids. These two developments served as a catalyst for ongoing improvements and modifications which are still a focus of today’s wheelchair manufacturers.
As the equal rights movement moved across the country, women with disabilities at the U of I also fought for equal opportunity on the basketball court. Practicing off campus in 1970 with the help of a graduate assistant coach, the students combined with community members to learn the intricacies of wheelchair basketball. Playing able-bodied teams because there weren’t any other women’s teams in the country, this group of women became know as the Ms. Kids; until, the 1973-74 season. The Ms. Kids finally had the opportunity to play a true women’s wheelchair basketball team, the Southern Illinois University Squidettes. Because of their exceptional level of skill and ability, the Ms. Kids defeated the Squidettes in the first wheelchair basketball game played between two organized women’s teams.
Not only did the U of I athletes play basketball, they also competed in track & field in the same sporty, lightweight chairs. In keeping with the traditions of the basketball teams, the U of I’s collegiate track & field team also introduced a number of improvements and changes in track & field wheelchairs. Indeed, in 1966 the U of I track athletes were disqualified from their events because of their innovative idea to use junior size backs instead of the standard E & J adult back. Though this slight modification was too overwhelming for the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, it was the beginning of a long history of changes, modifications, improvements and state of the art developments of the racing chair. Because of the U of I’s dominance in wheelchair sports throughout the ’60s, the “National Wheelchair Games Team Trophy” was discontinued since the U of I won it every year.
As the Gizz Kids, the Ms. Kids and others who were part of the program rolled through history, so did the rest of the sports world. In 1980, the program began to focus on competitive sports and on becoming the hub of technology, research and advancement in wheelchair sports. In 1986, the Gizz Kids and Ms. Kids became known as the Fighting Illini Men’s and Women’s Wheelchair Basketball teams. They play in wheelchairs that weigh half as much as the Gizz Kids’ chairs; really do spin on a dime; have no armrests; and use high pressure tires for speed and traction. The Fighting Illini Men’s team has won 7 National Intercollegiate Championship titles and have played in every NWBA post-season tournament. The Fighting Illini Women’s team has won 8 National Women’s Basketball Tournament Championships; have advanced to the championship game in 13 of the last 16 years; and hold the record for the most consecutive national titles with five (1990-94).
The Fighting Illini Men’s & Women’s Wheelchair Track & Field Team has also excelled, and the success has carried over to some of the world’s most prestigious road racing events. Competing in chairs built specifically for racing and for the athlete, gold, silver, and bronze medals have been won in four consecutive Olympic Exhibition events on the track. With chairs that are completely different from the E & J; weighing only 15-18lbs, and which have three wheels, an aerodynamic shape, and specialized racing wheels, the athletes have set numerous national and international track records and have won a multitude of road racing championship titles. The team remains the only collegiate wheelchair track & field team in the country, and the U of I remains the prominent force in the development and training of wheelchair athletes and coaches and in applied wheelchair sport research.
Information cited from “The History of Sports Wheelchairs-Part I and Part II”, LaMere, T.J. and Labanowich, S. Sports ‘N Spokes, March and May, 1984.