Wildcat Paralympians in London

Zach Abbot, who has been wheelchair racing since he was 11, says this trip to London is the fulfillment of his childhood dream -- to go to the Paralympics. Photo credit: Tom Spitz
August 28, 2012

This year, the 2012 Paralympic Games – the biggest ever – will feature 4,200 athletes from 160 countries who will compete in 20 sports.

Among them will be seven competitors from the UA: wheelchair basketball player Jennifer Poist (doctor of pharmacy student); long jumper Tanner Gers (business administration and communication junior); wheelchair racer Zach Abbott (psychology major); wheelchair racer Jordan Bird; and tennis players Noah Yablong (engineering management major), Adam Kellerman (physiology major) and wheelchair tennis team head coach Bryan Barten.

Each one brings dedication, athleticism and heart to their events and their lives.

Jennifer Poist: Wheelchair Basketball

Poist, a 23-year old doctor of pharmacy student and the sole lady Wildcat in the Paralympics, will compete with 11 other teammates who made the cut for the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team. As a member of the UA women’s wheelchair basketball team, Poist was used to long hours of training with her teammates, but learning she was one of 18 women in the country to be invited to compete for a spot on the USA Paralympics team, she upped her routine and committed to solo practices of shooting and endurance training.

“The training was hard some days, but worth it. I was shocked to hear that I had made the team – it took a good month for it to set in. Now that London is a week away, I am ready to get there,” said Poist.

Tanner Gers: Long Jump and 4 x 100-Meter Relay (Alternate)

Gers will compete in the blind/visually impaired group. Excelling by leaps and bounds describes his inherent talent in track and field, having made the cut for the USA National Team in the long jump in his first qualifying meet in 2011. He gained selection the 2012 Para Pan American games in the 100 and 200-meter races and placed first in the long jump. His mom, dad, aunt, uncle and wife will be attending the games. “My wife motivates me to do better. I’m excited to compete – it’s going to be fantastic,” Gers said.

Zach Abbott: 100, 200, 400 and 800-Meter

Abbott, who has been wheelchair racing since he was 11, was born with sacral agenesis, a condition characterized by the absence of the variable portion of the caudal portion of the spine. “I’ve dreamed of going to the Paralympics – it was my childhood dream.” He said a visit to Tucson to compete in the Jim Click Run and Roll convinced him the UA was for him.

Jordan Bird: 400 and 800-Meter

At the age of 2, Bird lost his father and his ability to walk after the car they were traveling in was hit by a drunk driver. He started racing at age 5 and got faster and faster, over time deciding that the Paralympics was an achievable goal.

Training wasn’t easy – his mother, a horse trainer, adapted her training for Bird because any adaptive sport teams were far from the family farm in Kansas. “I chose the UA because of the Disability Resource Center, the Adaptive Athletics program and the weather.”

He is impressed with UA coaches and academic support for competitions and meets and looks forward to London, where his mom and girlfriend will be on hand for support. “I am ecstatic – there are no words to describe the feeling. There is no greater feeling than to compete for your country and for them to cheer for you in the race.”

Noah Yablong: Wheelchair Tennis

Recent UA graduate Yablong said he is looking forward to seeing friends from all over the world during the London Paralympics – friends he has made in the 10 years he has dedicated to wheelchair tennis.

“Everything else pales compared to going to the Olympics. Life doesn’t get better than this. I would love to say I am going to get gold, but there are a lot of good players competing.”

Earning a degree in engineering management taught Yablong the essence of time management. Now 24 years old, he learned to balance the needs of his classes, training and the travel time for tournaments. “The support from the UA is spectacular. Arizona’s program is one of the top Adaptive Athletic programs in the country. The program offers so many competitive team options.”

Adam Kellerman: Wheelchair Tennis

Representing Australia, Kellerman, who is 21 years old, was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma at the age of 13. He survived surgery, but developed a bone infection that would take two years and 25 surgeries to overcome. He battled depression and isolation until in 2006, when he began playing wheelchair tennis which made him feel alive and excited about the possibilities that lay ahead.

After overcoming the initial challenge of the wheelchair, Kellerman began studying and training at the UA in 2010. Today, he is excited to be representing Australia during the Paralympics in both singles and doubles and currently ranks second in Australia and 29th in the world.

Bryan Barten: Wheelchair Tennis

While competing at the UA, Yablong and Kellerman and all the Adaptive Athletics athletes can rely on the experience, skill and unyielding support of their mentor, coach and fellow Paralympian, Barten.

Seven-time USA World Team Cup member and currently ranked No. 9 in singles in the world, Barten recruited Yablong and Kellerman to the UA wheelchair tennis team. He credits the culture and outstanding opportunities in Adaptive Athletics at the UA for the successful representation in the Paralympics.  

“We are the best – the international aspect has blown up for us. Recruitment within the U.S. was great, but now we are recruiting international students to the program with success. It shows that we are the only place in the world that has this opportunity for wheelchair athletes to be a student athlete and compete internationally in wheelchair sports,” said Barten, who is 38 years old.

“There are programs nationally that may have a team – one wheelchair athletics team, maybe a basketball team, but we have five different sports here,” said Barten. “There is a whole culture here a wheelchair athletics culture – not just one team, all these teams supporting each other.”

Learn more about the UA's nationally-renowned Adaptive Athletics Program.