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'Dairyland Games 2017' shines light on adaptive sports, disabled athletes

'Dairyland Games 2017' shines light...

Northern Illinois University junior Mike Assefa has always been a dedicated athlete.

"In high school, I played baseball, I did track and I also played football," Assefa said.

He's also the perfect example of the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Five years ago, his ability to compete came to a screeching halt.

"Back in 2012, I was in an accident where I lost my leg. I was hit by a train," Assefa said.

After waking up from a coma, Assefa started his rehabilitation process. He said he had to relearn everything when it came to mobility. Even with the struggles, his passion to play never faded.

"I was in the hospital bed like, I want to start running sometime soon," Assefa said.

He decided to join Great Lakes Adaptive Sports, which brought him to The Dairyland Games at Middleton High School two years in a row.

"The Midwest doesn't have too many opportunities, so this is really nice to be able to drive here and compete," Assefa said.

Normally, Assefa and other para-athletes have to travel far for national qualifying competitions. SSM Health in Madison saw the growing need for a local opportunity.

"There's never been a qualifying event in the state of Wisconsin," said event director Deb Jenks.

The Dairyland Games is a regional competition, where six- to 22-year-olds can qualify for the Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals, which will be held July 13-22 at Middleton High School.

This is the second year for the weekendlong event, bringing in twice as many athletes.

SSM Health added swimming and archery competitions this year, and also invited adult para-athletes to qualify for the U.S. Para Nationals.

"We want to just create a venue for people to try out sport, compete in sport, and then excel in sport," Jenks said.

Jenks works with a range of athletes as an athletic trainer at SSM health. She said the Dairyland Games' competitors should have the same opportunity as everyone else.

"Over the last two years, watching these guys and gals, I really don't see a lot of difference. You kind of look beyond those disabilities and personally, sometimes I think they're more able than the able bodies. They don't act, they don't complain, they don't make excuses. An athlete's, an athlete's, an athlete," Jenks said.

Jenks wants these athletes to always have the chance to go the distance, which is something Assefa plans to do.

"I want to qualify for the national championship in Los Angeles. Hopefully from there, we'll pick a team to go to the world championships in London," Assefa said.

He said no matter where his professional and athletic careers take him, he hopes to continue being a role model for young para-athletes.

"It just reassures them that they can live a life that is normal like any other kid. They can have fun and can just live a full life," Assefa said.


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