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Dream big. You may hear it from your mentor or have it pinned on an inspiration board. But how do you make the leap from having a great idea to making it actually happen?

 

Rob Egan of Wichita is someone who took an idea – to create more opportunities for disabled students to compete in adapted athletics – and turned it into a functioning, sustainable organization. It certainly wasn’t easy, and it took a strong dose of persistence coupled with an infusion of the right team to make it happen.

Without that initial vision, though, Wichita wouldn’t be playing host to a tournament for every intercollegiate wheelchair basketball team in the nation in 2016, lifting up the entire sport in the process. The story of Egan, an alumnus of a three-day leadership program at the Kansas Leadership Center in 2014, and his work serve as a testament to the principle that leadership is an activity that starts with you but also must engage others.

 

The people who work with Egan on the society say it’s both amazing and yet unsurprising that Egan has taken the seed of an idea and nurtured it into a full-fledged organization.

 

Egan, now a 20-year-old college student, launched the beginnings of what would become the American Collegiate Society for Adapted Athletics in 2009, when he was an incoming high school freshman. The society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors. Even with the support of a board and a stable of reliable volunteers, it is still largely fueled by Egan’s passion and vision. Egan oversees daily operations as president while also attending classes full time at the University of Arizona.

The people who work with Egan on the society say it’s both amazing and yet unsurprising that Egan has taken the seed of an idea and nurtured it into a full-fledged organization.

Sierra Scott, a Wichita television personality, first met a young Egan when she did a story on Heartspring, where he received services for his cerebral palsy, a muscle disorder he was born with that impedes movement. At that time, she told him she would serve on the board of the organization he wanted to create.

It wasn’t that Scott didn’t think Egan would follow through – it’s just that she thought it would take him a decade or so. After all, he was just a kid, albeit a highly articulate one. Before she knew it, Egan was knocking on her door with an open board seat to fill. As volunteer Patricia Sherwood puts it: “He’s not as young as you think he is in his demeanor.”

 

BEGINNINGS

To understand Egan’s passion for adapted athletics, it helps to understand his background. He has four younger brothers, all active in sports. “For a long time, I was jealous of them – upset that I couldn’t join them,” he says. “Obviously, there’s a limit to what I can physically do. I’m not going to be on the stage and do a tap routine.” Egan’s parents sent him to camps where he could participate in adapted athletics for kids with disabilities. Adapted programs for basketball, tennis, archery, bowling and swimming exist, but usually only in big cities.

As it turns out, Egan did not find his passion in actually playing sports. “I more wanted the opportunity to play.”

A middle-school essay inspired him to envision expanding opportunities in adapted athletics to students with disabilities. He soon homed in on intercollegiate athletics, where options have been even fewer. Wheelchair basketball is the largest such sport nationwide with 13 teams – but all have extremely limited budgets, especially compared with typical college basketball programs.

Egan had a vision for a tournament modeled after the NCAA Tournament, and he began doing research. “I wrote actual letters and sent surveys through the mail” to what he determined were disability friendly universities. “They said, ‘What you want to do is awesome, but where’s the money?’ At that point I was afraid of money – afraid of asking for it.”

 

  • Rob Egan of Wichita, now a student at the University of Arizona, is creating opportunities for disabled athletes to compete at the college level.

 

Egan turned to his grandparents, both accountants, to help get the group’s nonprofit status in place. Some of the first members of his board of directors were his teachers and mentors. He launched the first Wheelchair Basketball Bash in 2010, a fundraiser for his organization that involved able-bodied athletes paying an entry fee and attempting wheelchair basketball. The games were played in the gym at his high school, Wichita Collegiate. Friends and friends’ parents helped execute the event.

Egan was proud that the event helped educate people about disabilities. Many were surprised by the intense physicality of wheelchair basketball and the extensive training it takes to play the game well.

“Society has this sort of longstanding image of dependency,” he says. “Most people either are productive or want to be. If we can get people a partial scholarship for a college degree, it opens up all kinds of opportunities that allow them to lead independent, productive lives.”

Egan, who uses a cane for balance when walking, is already there with independence. He drives his own car and lives alone in an on-campus apartment.

Egan achieved the next part of his dream through a connection with the manager at Abuelo’s Mexican Restaurant, which had been used as a caterer at the Wheelchair Basketball Bash dinner and auction. The manager’s dad turned out to be Doug Garner, the adapted athletics director at the University of Texas at Arlington. Egan began cultivating a relationship with Garner and trying to find out how the society for adapted athletics could be useful to the collegiate programs.

 

TURNING POINT

That relationship with Garner was crucial in Egan achieving his dream of hosting an intercollegiate wheelchair basketball tournament – and it also represented a tipping point with his board of directors.

In May 2013, Egan was a senior in high school and on a school trip to Chicago when Garner called from the annual coaches meeting for intercollegiate adapted athletics. Garner wondered: “Do you have any interest in hosting a tournament in Wichita?” Garner thought Wichita could be a good market – not too big, not too small and geographically central, a benefit because teams travel by bus.

But there was one catch, Egan recalls. Garner said: You have to pay for it – for everything.

At that point Egan had raised some scholarship money but knew that wouldn’t be enough. He knew he needed to gain the support of his board members, and he wasn’t even 18. He found his high school principal, who was on the Chicago trip and serving as board president, and they quickly calculated a bill of $50,000 to cover transportation, room, board and a tournament, including certified referees and facilities.

Egan asked his principal what he thought about making a run at hosting the tournament. “He said, ‘I don’t know, but if we don’t, they’re never going to ask again.’”

They decided to go for it, but there was some unease. It all seemed too soon, too much and too expensive. It felt risky.

“I was not against it, but I did not think we would be able to pull it off,” Scott says.

The board decided on a deadline to have the money for the tournament raised. Scott had traveled with Egan to see teams play in Birmingham, Alabama, several months earlier and was moved. “I was sad to see the lack of support that these teams have,” she says. “They are amazing athletes.”

With persistence and some pluck, Egan and his board and volunteers made that tournament happen for 2014. Four men’s teams traveled to Wichita with all expenses covered, and they were celebrated at the annual Wheelchair Basketball Bash banquet.

“The players and the coaches, I think, marveled at the fact that, (A) we did it and, (B) we wanted to,” Egan says. “Nobody had ever hosted a tournament outside of a college umbrella.”

Scott says Egan and other volunteers had to hustle for every dollar and every arrangement. “I think the toughest thing is just getting people to buy into the dream,” Scott says. “I thought it would be an easier sell than it has been.”

 

Egan asked his principal what he thought about making a run at hosting the tournament. “He said, ‘I don’t know, but if we don’t, they’re never going to ask again.’”

 

For 2015, the tournament returned to Wichita, and it grew: all 11 intercollegiate teams, both men’s and women’s, played.

The expansion of the tournament to all intercollegiate wheelchair basketball teams was once again met with caution by Egan’s board of directors. Egan didn’t want to give up the model of paying all expenses, and it seemed like a big leap to several members: “I said: ‘I’m going to steal the line that was given to me last year: If we don’t, I don’t think they’ll ask again.’”

Once again, the board decided on a fundraising deadline as the best way to move forward prudently with a tournament.

Ultimately, the fundraising goal was met, and the 2015 tournament moved to the YMCA’s Farha Sports Center, which allowed for three courts to be used at the same time. Egan also achieved another goal in 2015: With help from a grant, his organization was able to offer $1,000 scholarships to 10 student athletes.

The 2016 tournament in January also took place at Farha, this time with the addition of two new intercollegiate teams: Arizona State University, a co-ed team, and Auburn University, a men’s team.
Egan says the teams are meeting the minimum three tournaments required for membership in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Intercollegiate Division, in part because of Egan’s all-expenses-paid Wichita tournament.

“It’s intense to see those kids in their sport wheelchairs,” says Sherwood, a family friend and volunteer who has been with the American Collegiate Society for Adapted Athletics since the beginning. “They move fast. Chairs are tipping over. Fingers are getting smashed.”

 

LESSONS IN LEADING

As Egan reflects on the progress his organization has made and the goals he still wants to achieve, he acknowledges the importance of surrounding himself with the right team.

“I will admit that my board, like all boards, has it strengths and its weaknesses,” he says. “You can’t do it all. One of the most important things is evaluating where my strengths lie. Find people to fill those gaps. So much gets done by a fabulous support team.”

 

Scott agrees. “Rob’s leadership style, which I really respect, is: He has a goal in mind but doesn’t get stuck on how he’s going to get there,” she says.

 

Sherwood, who uses her expertise in development and fundraising, says that because Egan dreams so big, sometimes her job is to help rein him in. She says Egan’s passion is his strength and, at times, it’s also his weakness. “He’s aggressive, very aggressive,” says Sherwood, also noting that he is creative and not a micromanager.

Scott agrees. “Rob’s leadership style, which I really respect, is: He has a goal in mind but doesn’t get stuck on how he’s going to get there,” she says.

Egan is also pretty self-aware.

“I am the vision person; I am the big-picture person,” Egan says. “It’s good to have a strong mix of the types of mindsets in your closest advisers – people that will be your devil’s advocates. I need those people who will put a wall somewhere and say when you get there, you need to stop.”

Egan is continually looking to the future. He wants to take his love affair with all things wheelchair basketball and spread it. He’s sold it to “a small but mighty group of sponsors.” And he’s sold it to members of the intercollegiate wheelchair basketball community, earning their trust and respect. Now he wants to sell it to the wider Wichita community and get more fans and spectators.

“The focus is not on what you can’t do, but what you can do,” he says. “I don’t believe in limits, and I don’t believe in boxes. You can compartmentalize your time but not yourself.”

 

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe

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