Forty-five years ago, Jo Ann Keyser Armstrong’s career began in wheelchair sports. Throughout her career she won gold, silver, and bronze medals in track, swimming, slalom, and basketball at the world level.
After watching a movie on wheelchair sports at a bowling banquet, she persuaded her teachers at Jefferson High School in Rochester to establish a competitive sports program for students with disabilities.
Jefferson High School’s Athletic Director, Roger Bunce, created the Rochester wheelchair team in 1965. Roger and his staff quickly recognized the importance of treating the program like any other competitive sports program at the high school. He believed that if you wanted a quality team you needed to have a set of goals, expectations, and behaviors.
Once established, that program produced a team that competed in the National Paralympic Games and set Armstrong on the path to becoming one of the world’s best athletes with a disability. In 1966, at the age of 19, Jo Ann was chosen to compete at the world games in England.
“My mother was chosen as one of the female chaperones,” said Jo Ann. “She was able to travel with me and experience my first world competition.”
From 1966 to 1974, Jo Ann competed on a regional, national, and world level of competition. She traveled outside the U.S. seven times to compete on two Paralympic teams, two Pan American teams, and to participate in three General World competitions.
“Whenever I competed in an event I always became very introspective,” said Jo Ann. “I felt that I needed all of my focus and concentration to be ‘in the moment.’”
In 1968, Jo Ann arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel to compete in her first Paralympics. “There were actually five athletes from the Rochester area chosen to be on a team of 75 athletes selected to represent the United States,” said Jo Ann. “That was an amazing statistic back in those days.”
“Winning these medals was the most exhilarating experience I have ever had,” said Jo Ann. “Being a part of such a large US contingency was very surreal. I absolutely loved being challenged by athletes from various countries. They were always making me “push the envelope.”
While wheelchair sports – now called adaptive sports – have existed since World War II, the last 50 years have seen tremendous growth in the development of athletic leagues, facilities, and programs as well as the emergence of a special type of athlete – one who has a valuable life-long skill set.
When Jo Ann who was born with spina bifida (a condition that impacts the development of a baby’s spine during pregnancy and affects more than 66,000 people in the United States) decided to retire from competition in 1976, she knew she needed to keep active. The Rochester Rookies was born from her desire to create a sports program that would allow young people to participate in sports, compete at various levels, teach independence, and build self-confidence.
The Rochester Rookies offers children with physical disabilities from age 6 to 22 to participate in recreational and competitive wheelchair and ambulatory sports.
Jo Ann lovingly refers to the Rochester Rookies as the Little League of wheelchair sports. “We get such a variety of children involved in the program,” said Jo Ann. “It’s the same as in Little League. Kids come with an abundance of God-given talent. We help develop their skills.”
According to Jo Ann, the Rochester Rookies is so much more than competitive sports. The objectives of the program are to: teach athletic skills, independence, and self-reliance; build character and self-confidence; encourage sportsmanship and teamwork; promote communication skills and problem-solving and network families and volunteers to enhance support systems.
“We see a totally different athlete once a parent drops off their child for a two-hour practice,” said Jo Ann. “I’m thrilled with progress at all levels. That’s what keeps me involved. I see noticeable differences in communications, athletic and social skills, and independence.”
The Rookies have an 8-month training season from September through November and February through June. Practice is held every Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. at SUNY Brockport College in the Tuttle North Gymnasium.
“As the team travels to regional and national events, we encourage families to come and support their athletes,” said Jo Ann.
When Jo Ann first met parents Gregg and Linda Chalmers through her volunteer work at the Kirch Clinic and Spina Bifida Association, she encouraged them to have their son Ryan try adaptive sports.
Ryan, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois where he competed in both basketball and track, credits SportsNet for getting him to where he is today.
Although Ryan has transitioned out of the Rochester Rookies, Gregg and Linda Chalmers continue to stay active as SportsNet coaches and volunteers because they believe in Jo Ann’s good work.
Jo Ann is passionate about encouraging young children to explore life and have fun with sports. Over the years not only has Jo Ann seen Ryan advance in track and basketball, but she also saw him meet new friends and build confidence in himself. Whether or not a participant performs at a highly competitive level doesn’t really matter.
“When you have a broad spectrum of what you do,” said Jo Ann, “it makes you a more viable athlete for what coaches and college recruiters are looking for – athletic ability, how you present yourself, confidence, independence, and how willing you are to learn.”