Ashley Thomas, the founder and CEO of Durham’s Bridge II Sports, was born with spina bifida, a condition that can cause mobility limitation and other physical issues. Having this condition shaped her life experience in many ways, but she never lets it define her.
As a young woman in school, she was ambulatory but wasn’t able to run unencumbered because of a limp and couldn’t take part in sports. Later in life, as the mother of three children, she had the opportunity to watch them grow and participate in activities like dance, football and gymnastics.
“There was such joy in a body that functioned totally and worked,” Thom- as says. “I found that I loved watching all those things I couldn’t do. Someone once asked if I loved those things because I couldn’t do them. Was it like forbidden fruit? When you don’t have mobility, the whole world can feel out of reach.”
When Thomas was older, after having hip replacements and a number of other surgeries, she started using a wheelchair. This turned out to be a real game changer for her.
“When I got my wheelchair, my energy level totally changed,” she recalls. “I began to wonder if I could participate in a 5K race and started to ask what was possible. Through internet research, I found someone in Arizona who said, ‘yes, you can train.’ After that, I began training and did my first 5K at age 42.”
TRANSFORMED BY TRAINING
At the time, Thomas was also busy being a mom to three active kids and was also volunteering at Duke Children’s Hospital, working with kids with spina bifida. She had always had a passion for helping others, but training lit a different kind of fire within her.
“When I had my first real cardio workout, it was amazing. I was im- mediately hooked,” she says. “At that point, I realized that the real reason I was drawn to sports and physical activity wasn’t because it was denied to me, it was because I was really designed to be an athlete.”
Thomas’ athletic journey began with training for a 5K with her daughter. From there, she moved to other sports until she came to parakayaking. At 48, Thomas was ranked fourth in the world in her sport.
“I was on the front end of parakayaking and helped make it a Paralympic sport,” she says. “In the early days, we had 32 teams sharing six boats, and our uniforms were leftovers from other teams. Being ranked fourth at the age of 48, I had other girls pointing out that I was old enough to be their mother. So I said, ‘Yes, and what will you be doing at 48?’”
As she came into her own as an athlete, Thomas couldn’t help but put it all in context with her past and empathize with the young people she worked with at the hospital. She knew how it felt to believe there were no opportunities to participate and now also knew firsthand that it does not have to be that way.
“It was part of seeing children or anyone with a disability,” Thomas says. “Being at children’s hospital we saw everything from spinal cord injuries to losing limbs. Then we had veterans returning from the war, as well. The reality for people is that their mind’s eye goes to the worst when something isn’t working and you can’t use your body the way it’s designed to be used.”
Thomas founded Bridge II Sports in 2006 with the purpose of giving athletic opportunities to people with physical disabilities. The organization began offering two sports and has grown to include 11 today.
“For me, my passion is giving people whose bodies don’t function normally the ability to exercise,” Thomas says. “I love seeing them find the joy of playing sports, the way I did with my own discovery of it. I think in life we can learn to accomplish things with a disability or limitation. My motto has always been to own the weakness and build the strength. You can say, this is what I can do, and this is where I’m going to need help.”
A SPORT FOR EVERYONE
The philosophy of Bridge II Sports is that there is a sport or activity for everyone, no matter what their physical limitations might be. Parakayaking is an excellent example because, as Thomas points out, the top times for the world’s best parakayakers are only a few seconds off the top times for their able-bodied equivalents. Bridge II Sports is always experimenting with adding new programs for different sports.
“People are different and not everyone likes to kayak,” Thomas says. “Some people like to do rock climbing, others like to play boccia. I think the world of disability is no different from the world of the able bodies. You have different interests and body types. We try to build each of our groups and create the right teams around them to make them sustainable.”
Also similar to able-bodied athletes, there are some who come to Bridge II Sports for exercise and enjoyment of sports, and others who come for serious training and competition. The group is a gold level Paralympic Sport Club.
“We have an athlete who now is at the University of Illinois and will be on the men’s Paralympic wheelchair basketball team in the future,” Thomas says. “We have another in Texas in a collegiate wheelchair basketball pro- gram and on the women’s Paralympic team. One of our blind athletes is in college and ranked No. 1 in tandem cycling. A young adult in our boccia program earned a spot on the U.S. National Boccia team. This athlete has been with us since the age of eight.”
Boccia is an example of the range of sports available at Bridge II Sports. Thomas notes that it is a sport that is a great fit for athletes affected by cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or are otherwise impacted by muscular limitations.
“We have a young man on the boccia team who is nonverbal. Hav- ing dealt with people with disabilities my whole life, I know that sometimes your brain is totally capable, but you don’t have words or can’t control your body,” Thomas says. “Boccia is like playing chess. It is a very intellectual, strategic game. We are thrilled we can offer that.”
Preparing athletes for high-level competition is definitely a point of pride for Bridge II Sports, but perhaps even more impactful is the difference the organization makes in the lives of its participants and their families.
“When you work with kids, you also work with parents, and one of the strengths of Bridge II Sports is that when new parents come in, others in the program take them under their wing,” Thomas says. “We had a new person come in last fall to our wheelchair basketball program and she was very timid. She was literally in tears because she was so worried. We asked some of the other girls to mentor her and she hasn’t missed a practice since. The change has been amazing, just seeing how she engages with the world now. She isn’t frightened.”
Thomas knows firsthand the challenges that athletes with disabilities face are not just physical. There are emotional and mental mountains to climb, as well.
“These kids are often the only one of their kind at their schools,” she says. “That’s very isolating. To be in a group that’s understanding and seeing older kids who are confident is a huge boost to younger kids. It makes them think, ‘I want to be like that.’ We see the same model work over and over again.”
Many of the kids in the program stay with it, and Bridge II Sports sees 92 percent of its student athletes go on to college or technical school. Beyond just sports, the organization helps give its athletes the mindset and tools to succeed in life beyond.
“There are a lot of things that happen when a disability enters a person’s life,” Thomas says. “Often for children with spinal cord injuries or spina bifida, the bowel and bladder don’t function, so they have to manage differently. I think one of our great accomplishments is that our kids learn self-care and what they need to do by the time they are 14. Because in competition, you can’t have an accident on the floor. We help prepare them to function independently.”
Independence is not just a set of skills, it’s a point of view. And teaching that is one of the things that Thomas is most proud of about Bridge II Sports.
“I think the greatest piece is that people come in understanding they have a disability and leave living life with a disability, rather than being disabled,” she explains. “To me, that mind shift is huge. Being able to be a participant. I can do it. I can go to school. I can go to work. For me, that’s the biggest win. Every day you live life with a disability, but you no longer identify as disabled. We work to free people.”
In just over a decade, Bridge II Sports has grown to include more than 100 athletes in their year-round programming, impacting even more lives. The organization is run by six full-time staff, three part-time staff and an army of volunteers. And there are many exciting plans to grow in the future.
“We want to incorporate more adaptive sports in public schools so we can get young kids involved,” Thomas says. “Our program obviously can’t support everyone, but we are trying to get schools to recognize that they can do things like sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and boccia.”
Bridge II Sports has been pushing state legislation around this idea since 2013, and it is seeing more traction. There are hopes it could pass this year.
“Should it pass, we foresee that we’ll have to build a new facility to ac- commodate fair competition. We are trying to breathe life into that right now,” Thomas says. Even as she looks to the future for the organization, she summarizes the core philosophy that has driven her and Bridge II Sports. “In the end, if you don’t set high standards, why try?”
Bridge II Sports currently offers programs in the following sports and activities:
- Air Rifle
- Wheelchair Basketball
To participate, volunteer or donate, visit www.bridge2sports.org, or call (866) 880-2742.
EveryBODY Plays NC
Bridge II Sports is working to ensure that students with physical disabilities can get off the sidelines while teaching their classmates about the ability of disability through the EveryBODYPlaysNC School Initiative.
Staff, along with athletes with disabilities host sports days at North Carolina schools during physical education classes and introduce all students to adapted sport through hands-on experiences in wheelchair basketball, goalball, boccia and sit volleyball.
For more information or to schedule an EBPNC Day at your school, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.