Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA Names Two Athletes to Hall of Fame
Recently, Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA (WASUSA) inducted two athletes into the Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports Hall of Fame. Mikel Vandello and Mike Wise were honored because of their athletic accomplishments and willingness to share their love for sports.
Vandello, who hails from Walworth, Wis., says her sports story began in an unlikely location: the square dance floor.
“I started square dancing when I lived in Denver,” she said. “We had 25 people in the group, and we had some ‘angels’ who pushed those who couldn’t push themselves.”
Vandello who usually used crutches had to use a wheelchair to participate.
“I was always told to stay away from using the wheelchair, that it would be a step back,” Vandello said. “But I wanted to have fun, so I got in the wheelchair.”
Square dancing became a starting place for Vandello to pursue other physical activities. She started swimming at the pool at Englewood High School in Colorado.
“The swim coach didn’t realize I was disabled,” Vandello said.
Later Vandello began training for competitions in track and field, but she had some trepidation about that.
“I wasn’t interested in competing at first. I was enjoying it too much, and I was afraid competition would take the fun out of it.”
Vandello soon got over that fear and began competing in a variety of sports.
“Nowadays, athletes specialize in one sport,” she said. “Back then, you competed in track, swimming and basketball. And to be selected to the U.S. Paralympic team, you had to show well in all events.”
Vandello would often swim the 50- and 100-meter races and then hit the track to run the half-mile and the mile, in which she competed against men.
“Once, I was chasing the guy in second place, and his wife kept yelling to him, ‘She’s on you! She’s on you!’ ”
In 1976, Vandello competed in the Toronto Paralympic Games. She also competed in the Pan Am Games in Brazil and the Stoke Mandeville Games in London.
Later in her athletic career, Vandello made the transition to coaching for the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, which she has found to be very rewarding.
“To see young kids with so much potential and the equipment advanced today, it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s so cool to see kids throw for an hour or two, and then they finally catch on. It’s incredible.
“I was working with a young man who is blind on throwing the discus,” Vandello said. “His father was calling to him from the field so he knew where to throw. After 50 times, he let one go perfectly. Everyone started yelling. He said, ‘Either that was a great throw or I killed somebody.’ ”
Being inducted into the WASUSA Hall of Fame means a lot to Vandello.
“My husband was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998,” she said. “Two weeks before my ceremony, he gave me a printout of the e-mail from WASUSA and said, ‘Congratulations, Hall of Famer!’ ”
Vandello set a world record in the shot put and a national record in swimming. She has also completed four triathlons (swimming, running and hand-cycling).
Her goal is to recover from a recent shoulder surgery to do one more.
Mike Ward grew up in Oklahoma and played football from the sixth grade to his sophomore year in high school. He took pride in his work in the trenches on the football field and relished contact with the opposition.
“The collision was great; you played for the collision,” he said. “I believe that if you didn’t play as an offensive or defensive lineman, you only thought you were playing football.”
Some of the intense drills he went through have been outlawed today, such as one called Bull in the Ring. This drill placed one player in the middle of a circle who got clobbered from all sides by his fellow players.
“You had to have your head on a swivel,” he recalled. “All the coaches in the 60s tried to coach like (Alabama legend) Bear Bryant, with three-a-day practices in the August 100-degree heat.”
After winning an all-state honorable mention, Ward went on to play football in college. He made the transition to wheelchair basketball after he broke his back while unloading cargo in Oklahoma City.
“Wheelchair basketball is a very intense sport with a lot of contact,” he said. “I enjoyed the intensity of the sport.”
Ward moved away to start his career as an audiologist, but he kept making the two-hour trip to play with his wheelchair basketball team for another dozen years. He was named to the Arkansas Valley Wheelchair Basketball Conference Hall of Fame two years ago.
When he was away from his basketball buddies, Ward took up the solitary sport of power lifting. He competed at combined wheelchair sports events, so he also began to throw the shot put and enter 100- and 200-meter races.
“My favorite sport was the shot put; it combined power, explosiveness, speed and finesse,” Ward said.
His performance in the field events took him to the 1988 and 1992 Paralympics and the 1990 World Championships in Holland, where he won the silver medal in the shot put.
In the mid-80s, Ward started a nonprofit organization called Oklahomans for Independent Living, which is located in McAlester, Okla. Through the organization, he has helped people with disabilities through peer support services, advocacy and skills training; provided lift-equipped transportation services; fought successfully for affordable, accessible housing; and provided ongoing social and recreational opportunities.
Being inducted into the WASUSA Hall of Fame was a thrill for Ward.
“Wheelchair sports has been a huge part of my life,” he said. “It opens doors for people with disabilities—not just me. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”
Jeff D. Gorman is a content producer for The Mobility Resource, a cooperative that includes BraunAbility and more than 90 adaptive driving dealers in the United States. For more information, visit www.themobilityresource.com.