Junior Nationals big opportunity for athletes and local businesses

For one week in July, the Middleton High School campus will host the Adaptive Sports USA 2016 Junior Nationals competition, giving young athletes with disabilities a chance to compete in the organization’s national championship.

The competition, scheduled July 16–23, is the national event’s first visit to the Madison area and is expected to attract about 250 young athletes from 35 states, plus their families, friends, and fans. A partnership between Adaptive Sports USA, the Madison Area Sports Commission, and the Middleton Tourism Commission is bringing it to town to showcase the athletic skills of participants between the ages of 7 and 22 in archery, powerlifting, swimming, table tennis, and track and field events. Some elite athletes may also use the event as a springboard to the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro later this summer. “This is our national championship,” says Gregg Baumgarten, games director for Junior Nationals 2016.

“We’ve never been in a location where we haven’t just had amazing community support and response, and people wanting us to come back,” he adds. “It’s a real feel-good, awe-inspiring type of event. Some of these kids are amazing athletes.”

The fact that Middleton will play host this year is almost a fluke. It was slated for Atlanta, but the city had to bow out after the organization tragically lost a lead organizer. So what normally takes about two years to prepare fell into greater Madison’s hands, and Baumgarten was charged with organizing the event, finding sponsors, and handling marketing in a much shorter timeframe. “We got the bid in November and I’ve been working on this since December,” he says.

A Sauk Prairie native, Baumgarten, a retired high school principal from Mesa, Ariz., has been calling on hometown friends to ask for support, including Craig and Curt Culver who signed on as honorary chairs, pledged their support, and co-signed a solicitation letter on behalf of the event that subsequently attracted others to the sponsorship table. “If it wasn’t for them, I would be jumping off the state capitol building,” he jokes.

Notable companies have joined in their support including American Family Insurance, Dean Clinic, QBE, and Econoprint, but as of this writing at least another $20,000 is needed. “What I’m doing right now is digitally knocking on doors,” Baumgarten says. “Our budget, between actual and in-kind costs, is probably around $200,000.”

Seven-year-old Hayden Smith hails from Verona.

The fact is, Madison is a relatively small market when it comes to event sponsorships. “Just as an example, at an event in New Jersey, Merck Pharmaceutical underwrote the majority of the event. In 2011, we were in Saginaw, Mich., and Dow Chemical underwrote it. In 2013, in Rochester, Minn., the Mayo Clinic underwrote it.”

Certainly, this year’s short timeline hasn’t helped, causing Baumgarten to suggest that area companies pool their resources into a community pot that could be used to attract events like his to town.

The host hotel, the Madison Marriott West, will benefit from about 1,000 room-nights from the event, he notes, “and with rental cars, restaurants, families extending their visits to the Dells or wherever, it’s a big deal to these kids, and has quite an economic impact. One the community can really embrace.”

Junior Nationals 2016 will bring about 35 volunteers into town a couple of days prior who will run the entire event. “Between cash and time, it’s about $120,000 worth of support,” he says. “Then we have to deal with meals, awards, T-shirts, officials, and that’s where the local community involvement is critical.”

He’s been contacting civic organizations asking for help during the week, but as of yet hasn’t received much interest. “We’d like to do a Wisconsin-style brat fry,” he says, particularly at a welcoming ceremony on Tuesday, July 19, when all athletes will be present. “We do a parade of athletes, and they all have their own state flags. This will be the first year that Wisconsin will have its state flag there.”



The Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals is as much about awareness, education, and enlightening the public as it is about competitive sports. “It really transcends sports,” Baumgarten insists. “Many of these kids come from parts of the country where they are not even allowed to access the high school track that their parents are paying taxes on because they use a racing wheelchair,” he says. “A lot of what we’re doing is about civil rights and equal opportunity. I equate it to where women’s sports were 50 years ago, before Title IX.

Kari Craddock is a 12-year-old from Richland Center.

“To Wisconsin’s credit, the WIAA (Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association) has been wonderful in including wheelchair athletes and developing younger athletes so they can compete at the high-school level, ” Baumgarten continues. “It’s about opening doors and giving these kids those same opportunities that a lot of other kids may take for granted.”

Founded in 1984, the Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals is the oldest and largest continuously held competitive sports event for kids with disabilities in North America. “It’s a big deal in the world of disabled sports,” Baumgarten says. Many of its athletes go on to represent the country at the Paralympic Games. “In 2012, 45% of Paralympic athletes were alumni of this organization.” Held a week after the Rio Olympics this year, NBC has committed to 75 hours of live and taped coverage, he adds.

When it came to seeking out a venue, Middleton High School fit the bill perfectly. “We have a lot of rigorous criteria, especially on the number of track lanes and we have to be very aware of track surfaces and potholes,” he notes. “Middleton’s facility is amazing and it’s very compact so events like archery, field events, the track, and lunches all happen within 300 yards of one another.”

Athletes are charged a registration fee but the general public can attend for free.

“I get a lot more out of this from the kids than I could ever possibly give back,” Baumgarten says. “It’s very humbling. Until you’ve been to one of these and seen the impact it has on the kids’ lives … For some of them, this will be the first time they will be away from their parents, and that’s huge in building self-confidence and independence. There will also be coaches here from other universities that offer partial scholarships for their wheelchair teams. It’s just very gratifying to be a part.”

Interested in helping sponsor or offering in-kind support? Click here.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.