Leveling the Playing Field

by Rebekah Goode
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Nick Giecek smiling by UT mural

Written by Brian Canever | Photo by Kellye McMillan

What always puts a smile on Nick Giecek’s face is the way the students look at each other the first day of class.

“Everyone is so standoffish,” said Giecek, who graduated in May 2018 with a master’s degree in recreation and sport management with a concentration in therapeutic recreation. “Two weeks later, everyone is laughing and having fun together. It’s a complete transformation from the nervousness on the first day.”

The students in Adaptive Recreation, a special topics course offered through the Physical Education Activity program since fall 2017, bond quickly as they play goalball, sitting volleyball, and wheelchair basketball—Paralympic staples that represent new sports to most of the students.

“We have students of every ability level and from every part of campus in our classes,” Giecek said. “There are students from business, engineering, sport management, and other majors. And we reserve five seats for students from the FUTURE program.”

The Adaptive Recreation program was started in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences two years ago by two therapeutic recreation faculty members, Associate Professor Angela Wozencroft and Assistant Professor Jason Scott. Giecek was the program’s first graduate assistant.

Giecek, who played hockey and lacrosse at Knoxville Catholic High School, wanted to work in sports when he came to UT for his bachelor’s degree in recreation and sport management. But it wasn’t until attending Camp Koinonia as a counselor during his sophomore year that he realized he wanted to make adaptive sports his career.

“Camp K is this euphoric experience,” Giecek said. “You sit in the cafeteria and see these campers and counselors interacting with no judgement. For many of the counselors, it’s the first time they’re interacting with someone with a disability.”

For Giecek, there was an added bonus to working at the camp: he got to be with his twin brother, Drew, who has autism.

“Every year as a kid, my parents dropped off Drew at camp, and I rode in the car to say bye to him,” Giecek said. “When we had the chance to go together, it was the first time I could really be with my brother and just have fun.”

Learning about the adaptive sports activities at Camp Koinonia made Giecek aware of the needs of students in the FUTURE program as well as others who might be excluded from recreation and sports opportunities on campus.

“Where there are needs on campus that aren’t met, there are people who step up and take the initiative,” Giecek said. “I wanted to step up so students at UT don’t miss out on the chance to meet and interact with others they might not normally meet without adaptive sports.”

As the Adaptive Recreation program’s first graduate assistant, Giecek has taught two courses each semester for the past two years. Conscious about how traditional approaches to sports might exclude students with disabilities, he’s found sports he could adapt so everyone could participate.

“It’s unfair to put someone with a disability in a typical basketball class,” Giecek said. “When you understand adaptive sports, you bring the game to everyone’s level ability and allow each person to show their potential.”

A student with cerebral palsy can step out of their wheelchair and sit with students to play sitting volleyball, while students with visual impairments can play goalball against sighted students who use eye patches. Another sport in the class, wheelchair basketball, has everyone play in a specially designed sports chair, where teams are balanced depending on the level of a player’s ability.

As the message of inclusion is addressed by each sport, mindsets begin to shift.

“The research shows that when a person without a disability sees someone in a wheelchair playing sports, it improves their attitude toward them,” Giecek said. “They realize, ‘Wow, this person is more capable than I thought.’”

Enrollment for each adaptive recreation class is capped at 20 students. Since the program started, more than 160 students have taken classes, and the demand for adaptive recreation classes grows every semester.

“Nick has done a phenomenal job recruiting,” said Scott. “He made in-class announcements, sent emails, distributed fliers, and helped orchestrate an adaptive sports event on campus to spread the word to students outside KRSS. The program is in a much better place with Nick’s commitment and leadership to making recreation inclusive
for all.”

After graduation, Giecek took his leadership skills to Atlanta, where he works as an adaptive sports specialist at the Shepherd Center. There he helps patients with various disabilities find suitable sports activities while providing competitive opportunities for former athletes who are injured.

“It might be quad rugby or power basketball,” Giecek said. “No matter what you’re playing, the social and physical benefits are really incredible.”

Regardless of the sport he’s teaching, one thing remains certain for Giecek: “I’ll take UT with me wherever I go.

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