As a first-year student on move-in day, Cathryn Gray spotted a fellow student she wanted to meet. “People who have cerebral palsy—or CP, which is the most common life-long motor disability—often have a very distinctive gait,” Gray explains. “When I saw her on my dorm floor I thought, ‘I have to talk to her.’ I wanted to be friends.” Gray found her opportunity that first night. “I was like, ‘Hey, my name is Cathryn, and I have CP. Do you?’” She giggles. “We were in the bathroom and she was brushing her teeth. She must have thought I was crazy, but I just had to know!”
This is how Gray and Madeline Gustafson became friends, and how Gustafson became the second female adaptive sports athlete at U-M. Gray, now a sophomore in LSA’s Residential College, is the first.
Gray may be the first adaptive female athlete at U-M, but she isn’t new to athletics or competition. “I think I've tried every sport growing up to see where I could fit in: basketball, soccer, table tennis, kayaking, rowing. Also rock climbing, which was really fun,” she says. “None of them really stuck for me. I couldn’t find my niche.” Then, at 13, she discovered adaptive track and field.
Adaptive sports, also known as parasports, are recreational and competitive sports for athletes with disabilities. The Adaptive Sports Program at U-M was founded in 2019 by Dr. Feranami Okanlami, assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine and rehab; director of services for students with disabilities; and director of adaptive sports and fitness. “The U-M program began with wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball,” Gray explains. “Now we have track and field and para-equestrian athletes, as well as other inclusive fitness opportunities. We’re looking to expand every sport, but it really all starts with people and participation.”
For Gray, people have always been the draw to athletics. Her experiences as a middle and high school student athlete gave her a nuanced and complex perspective on acceptance and belonging.
“I always liked school, and academics were a way for me to prove myself,” she explains. “The part of me that has CP is what people see first, but it doesn’t define me. When people doubted my intelligence because of my disability, excelling in school gave me the opportunity to prove them wrong.”
Being an athlete was different. Her track and field teammates, she says, were very accepting and supportive, “but I definitely felt my differences were accentuated by the fact that no one else on my team had a disability. If we did warm-up laps, I’d be the last one in.”
Her sense of being different from her teammates was further accentuated because she was judged differently during track and field events. “According to the high school sports association bylaws in Georgia, where I’m from, people with physical disabilities could compete on the team, but they weren’t allowed to score points,” she explains. “And in high school competitions, you want to have a lot of points for your school so you can go to state and beat the other high school teams.” She and her mother made an appeal to the Georgia High School Association. Initially they turned her down. Then, when she was a junior, Gray and her mother made another appeal and they reversed their decision, paving the way for hundreds of other students with disabilities to compete. Gray would love to see the NCAA do the same.
“Connecting with athletes with disabilities at U-M definitely makes me feel more included, like there’s a space for me,” she says. “I think everyone deserves to be part of a community, to feel seen and heard.”
Since she’s been at U-M, Gray has worked hard to expand the community of adaptive athletes. In addition to Gustafson, Gray also recruited Ray Budelman, a graduate student in U-M’s School of Information. “I found him in Panera,” she says, laughing. “I was so nervous! I went up to him and he said, ‘You’re going to ask about CP.’ And I said, ‘You’re right.’ And then I also asked if he was an athlete. He’s been coming to practices every week.”
Gray’s happy about every athlete that joins the team, and she especially hopes to recruit more women. “It’s really good for them as individuals and athletes,” she says, “and it also means I might have more opportunities to compete.”
Adaptive sports use classifications that denote the degree of impairment, similar to the way that boxing and wrestling classify competitions and athletes by weight. “Right now there aren’t enough women competing in my class in the events that I specialize in,” she explains. “And to qualify for the Paralympics, you have to rank very high internationally, and I’m not quite there yet.”
But she’s getting closer. In the 2021 Desert Challenge Games, a multi-day international competition for athletes with physical disabilities, Gray won gold in the javelin and discus throws, placed second in shot put, and third in the 100-meter dash in her class.
“I was also selected for the USA team competing in Thailand and England, but unfortunately they were canceled because of COVID. The international competition in England would have been all female, which I was looking really forward to.”
Gray has needed a lot of grit to get to this point, and she has a healthy dose of gratitude. “I feel really lucky that I have the chance to attend U-M and the opportunity to recruit additional people into the adaptive sports program,” she says. “There have been many catalysts for my academic and athletic success, and one of the biggest is that I want people with disabilities to know I’m rooting for them and trying to make things better. I don’t know exactly how that will manifest in my future, but I hope the people with disabilities who come after me know someone was looking out for them. I hope they feel there is a space for them because of what I went through. I hope that I change things, even just a little bit, so they feel less alone.”