When the National Wheelchair Basketball Association announced its Class of 2014 into the NWBA Hall of Fame, Ella Chafee of Oak Lawn rolled her eyes in surprise and her wheelchair up the platform to accept.
Chafee graced the ballroom stage at Louisville, Kentucky’s Crowne Plaza April 5 for the official ceremony of induction. The NWBA Hall Of Fame began in 1973.
“I’m one of only 11 women to receive this honor over 41 years.” she said
Chafee is known by her peers as a pioneer in the development of the Women’s Division of the NWBA. Her affiliation and longevity in wheelchair basketball is considered legendary by many.
“Back in 1980, the NWBA didn’t have a women’s team,” she said. “I wanted to play, so I started my own.”
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago became the team’s official sponsor. Today that team is known as RIC Sky.
“When we first started, we had six players, just enough to have a sub. Let me tell ya, I played a lot of minutes,” she said.
Chafee said she has been a lifelong lover of sports.
At the age of six she contracted an acute viral infection known as polio, causing asymmetric paralysis. Only her legs were affected. Polio, however, couldn’t stop her.
“I’m a natural born tomboy. As a child, my first love was playing baseball,” she said. “I had a runner but I did my own hitting.”
She’s also pretty good in the water, too.
Chafee held national records in the 50-yard backstroke, winning two world records in swimming.
She also broke records in 800- and 1500-meter track events. She was selected for eight major international competitions, the Stoke Mandeville Games, Pan American Wheelchair Games, and three Paralympics over the span of three decades.
She also was one of the initial female marathoners and participated in the Boston Marathon in 1979, was the founder of the Chicagoland Area Women’s Wheelchair Sports Association, and is a USA hall of fame recipient for Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports.
Robert Syzman, of Morgan Park, is an associate professor of health, physical education and recreation, at Chicago State University and an inductee of the NWBA Hall of Fame. He served as a coach to Chafee and countless others and introduced Chafee during the hall of fame ceremony.
“The hall of fame committee found Ella suitable after a forensic search of the Chicago Charmers, RIC Express, and RIC Sky rosters yielded numerous names of young women whose wheelchair basketball careers began at her insistence,” he said “I believe Ella’s path to achievement was accelerated while she was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, working with her proclaimed mentor, Tim Nugent and her coach, Stan Labanowich.”
The U of I has one of the best divisions for disability resources and educational services in the nation. Syzman said,
“Ella was surrounded by some of the finest wheelchair athletes of the day. It made her a versatile athlete.”
Due to her success, the University of Illinois Delta Sigma Omicron, Alpha Chapter presented Chafee with the prestigious Harold Scharper Lifetime Achievement Award.
If you ask Chafee, she’s modest about her accomplishments and her induction speech was concise. She joked, “I would’ve said more but Bob stole my thunder.”
Syzman introduced Chafee at the induction ceremony. His speech was more suited for a lifetime achievement award rather than one sport.
He said, “Ella’s demonstrated a life full of accomplishments. People from a variety of arenas have highlighted her achievements across an array of human activities.”
Syzman included how the Girls Scouts USA recognized her with its “Women of Distinction” award. The Social Security Administration named her Handicapped Employee of the Year and also presented her with the Commissioner’s Award for Excellence, the Regional Commissioner’s Community Service Award and the Hammer Award.
Chafee worked for the Social Security Administration for 30 years before her retirement 11 years ago.
Perchance Syzman knowing he’d been longwinded said, “You ask, what does this have to do with the honor we bestow? Nothing. It does demonstrate the breadth of her talents, achievements and contributions.”
In the sport of wheelchair basketball, Chafee has been a player, coach, table official, and recruiter, spanning 46 years. The Chicago Park District recently recognized her and husband, Ian, as significant contributors to the development of wheelchair sports in Chicago.
Today Chafee continues to promote women’s wheelchair sports. As a guest lecturer for Project C.H.A.N.G.E. -- a federally funded program to eliminate misconceptions of persons with disabilities -- she emphasizes that her wheelchair basketball career has been her most important method of inclusion. During lectures, Chafee is known for slipping into her sports chair to demonstrate her moves, delighting the audience.
“Wheelchair sports build confidence and helps those struggling lose bitterness.” she said
Outside of family, the trailblazer in her eyes is The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It provides adaptive sports to children, as young as three and adults, of all abilities.
The athletic coordinator, Trent Thenhaus said “Special recreation equipment can be costly, acting as a deterrent for prospective players. However, we offer nearly all our programs and equipment at no cost to the athlete.”
RIC is a non-profit organization relying on philanthropic support. Its athletic division functions with only a few paid staff. The coaches, equipment managers, tournament assistants and others are volunteers.
To learn more visit www.ricsports.org or call 312-238-5001.