PossAbilities Helps Put Para Athletes On The Road To Recovery

by Joanne C. Gerstner

A PossAbilities participant competes in a road cycling race. (Photo courtesy of Team PossAbilities)

Hundreds of people needing physical therapy come through the Loma Linda University Health medical center each year. Their journeys are all different, as they seek to regain strength to overcome accidents, genetic disabilities or degenerative disease.

For the vast majority, the idea of reaching elite athlete status — such as becoming a Paralympian — is not part of the plan. But for PossAbilities, a nonprofit community outreach program, the goal is to show what each person can achieve in the form of hope.

PossAbilities’ Para-Cycling program and its other para-sports offerings reach into the Loma Linda, California, community and beyondvia its grass-roots adaptive sports programs and sponsorship of elite Paralympic athletes. The organization was founded in 2000 and has been steadily growing in scope.

“We want to reach every person we can, from the freshly injured to somebody who has been dealing with a disability for a while  we are an open door,” said Cotie Williams, PossAbilities’ executive director. “A lot of them are starting from scratch, and they’re like ‘Hey, what can I do?’

“And that’s where we are coming in and showing them what is possible. We show them the pathways. We can get them into a sport, starting from scratch. We want to be the pathway forward for them to getting them active.”

The PossAbilities-sponsored team has eight athletes, including five cyclists. The group helps pay for equipment, travel to competitions, coaching and other needs. In return for the sponsorship, they ask that the athletes represent PossAbilities as ambassadors in their communities and, if possible, interact regularly with the groups in Loma Linda. 

The nonprofit also organizes activities such as monthly rides, and has increased its online presence to remain a valuable asset during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the athletes can once again safely meet in person, the group will provide equipment such as handcycles for new riders to try out.

“We see the giving back to the community as a huge part of our mission,” Williams said. “Anybody can be part of our program; anybody can apply for sponsorship by us. We are open to seeing who we can impact and help, and in turn, how they push our mission further too.”

Two-time Paralympic gold medalist Shawn Morelli is part of Team PossAbilities. She appreciates the group’s sponsorship and support, as well as the opportunity to spread a positive message of inclusion in sport. Morelli does not live in California, so she does her community work on its behalf near her home in Leavenworth, Kansas.

“It’s a great team camaraderie,” said Morelli, who hopes to be part of her second Paralympic road and track teams this summer. “Obviously last year we really weren’t racing, but we still had chat channels, support groups, etc. They were still really there for us. 

I get a lot of personal growth out the community involvement with them,” she continuedI love that we can help athletes who are struggling with their disabilities find their identity. They’re everyday people, and we can show them how sports can get them back into life (and be) more whole. That is what happened for me with cycling.”

Morelli, who was seriously injured by an IED explosion in 2007 while serving as a U.S. Army engineering officer in Afghanistan, said her journey from healing to recovery to launching a cycling career helped her see PossAbilities’ power in the community.

“When I was injured, I felt like I was missing something foundational in my life, but then I saw that I was still able to do a sport and compete,” Morelli said. “I do talks at the local bike shop, community centers, talk to new cyclists about getting into e-riding, just talk to them about what it is like to compete with disabilities. 

“It is about seeing what is possible with your ability, not disability,” she addedThat’s why I am happy to be an ambassador for them.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for since 2009 as freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.