Clemson takes the lead on adaptive sports initiative

In 2018, surplus tuition funds were used to buy a dozen sport wheelchairs for students. Academia was added to the equation shortly thereafter when an entry-level course became the starting point for an undergraduate focus within the parks, recreation and tourism management (PRTM) degree program.

It’s the origin story of adaptive sports at Clemson University, which gives students with mobility impairments a chance to compete athletically. It’s still a unique endeavor among institutions of higher education statewide.

Six years after the program’s formation, Clemson remains the only university in South Carolina to offer adaptive sports as well as a related PRTM concentration in recreational therapy, which educates future adaptive sports instructors and service providers.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Associate Professor Jasmine Townsend, director of the adaptive sports program and recreational therapy program coordinator. “If there’s one person on campus with a disability who wants to participate in sports, there should be something for them. That’s equity.”

Jasmine always wanted to start an adaptive sports program given her blend of personal desires and professional expertise. She has a master’s degree in youth and family recreation from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in leisure behavior from Indiana University. Her husband, Jeff, who has two degrees in sports management, was a standout wheelchair basketball player at the University of Illinois before becoming a Paralympian.

Soon after arriving at Clemson from the University of Mississippi in 2014, the Townsends met with University leadership to discuss implementing a program. From those like-minded conversations came the realization that Clemson was a fit.

“The (University’s) strategic plan at the time, it talked about inclusive excellence,” Jasmine said. “It talked about high-quality athletics programs. It talked about a lot of different things that were piquing my interest. They already are speaking the language.”

The program started with adaptive intramural sports, including wheelchair basketball. It’s since grown to the varsity level. In 2019, Clemson adopted wheelchair tennis as its first varsity adaptive sport.

“Certainly, with my role, I want to help nationally, let alone locally here at Clemson, grow the sport, the access, the opportunity and the inclusion for athletes that need to compete in an  adaptive manner,” said athletic director Graham Neff, who’s part of an implementation team for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee/National Collegiate Athletic Association Para-College Inclusion Project. The initiative aims to create new pathways for athletes with disabilities on college campuses.

The tennis team, comprising one current student-athlete and three affiliate players, practices at least three times each week and competes in multiple events per year. In July, it will host the third annual Clemson Wheelchair Tennis Championships, a U.S. Tennis Association-sanctioned event.

“We’re just like everyone else. We’re athletes. We practice. We get up early and go to compete. We’re just as competitive as everyone else.”

Wheelchair tennis player Mckenna Woodhead, PRTM (recreational therapy) ’25

Jasmine and Neff said wheelchair basketball and adaptive track and field have been approved as the program’s next varsity sports, though more funding needs to be secured through various streams, including grants and donations, before they start competing. Jasmine said a year’s worth of expenses for the tennis team, including uniforms and travel, is roughly $125,000.

The long-term goal, Jasmine said, is to work with the South Carolina Recreation & Parks Association, among other entities, to become a university-based adaptive sports service provider statewide.

“Even if somebody doesn’t want to come to Clemson,” she said. “Maybe they want to go to Alabama. Maybe they don’t want to go anywhere. But they at least have the opportunity to be involved in their communities and in their schools, in sports and recreation, just like any other kid.” 

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