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“Just because you are born with a disability doesn’t necessarily mean you are not born athletic. Your athleticism trait might be what makes you go.” Coach Pete Hughes, University of Arizona Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team Tucson, AZ
Pete Hughes was so passionate about coaching football that he did not know what he was missing in wheelchair sports until he was 29. He says, “I look at my disabled sport career now, and I wonder what would have happened if I had started playing when I was 5 or 10 years old.” He is now the head coach of the Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team at the University of Arizona! Last year, Coach Hughes was in India for the same cause. This year, Pete’s organization, Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide Team is going to be traveling to Nepal this year to raise awareness of wheelchair sports in the region. We hope you enjoy this post on Pete Hughes! Please feel free to share your thoughts with us by commenting on this post.
Where you were born and raised? What’s your current hometown?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1970 on Halloween. My dad was a VP at Macy’s and he got transferred to the San Francisco Bay Area. But, my dad passed away at a young age, so my mom took me back to Brooklyn where her family was every summer. She didn’t want to raise me in Brooklyn because she thought it was a tough place to raise a kid. But she missed it so much that every summer we would go back to Brooklyn. In fact the house I was born in is still being used my family. My uncle and his family are living there. The house just had its 100th birthday!!
A lot of times, I tell people I was raised in New York because I think as a young kid you learn more in the streets of Brooklyn in a couple weeks than you do spending months and months in San Mateo. Now, Tucson, AZ is my hometown.
How do you end up living in Arizona?
I came to Arizona in 2004. The University of Arizona offered me a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball.
As a student?
I already had my master’s degree when I came to the University of Arizona. As they were transitioning into the collegiate division, they wanted to recruit some experienced players. They knew I wanted to play basketball. When I was there, the college ensured the best players were in the college division. I wanted to play with those guys. So I asked my wife for her opinion. She said, “You will regret it if you don’t try, so just do it!” I didn’t started playing basketball until I was getting my sports psychology degree in Australia. A guy made me a wheelchair to try out. That was in 1998.
Alright let’s back up a bit! I’m sure our readers would love to hear more about the trip to Australia and how you ended up playing wheelchair basketball while getting your degree!
I went to Australia for my master’s degree. Before anything happened I was a football coach. I got my Bachelor of Science in Adaptive P.E. in San Diego in 1996. I taught and coached football for many years. I decided to get my master’s degree overseas. I went to Australia in 1998. I got my master’s in education with an emphasis in sports psychology. While I was there, I worked as the sports psychologist for the local quad rugby and wheelchair basketball teams. I met with Australia’s more famous wheelchair basketball players, including Brad Ness who is the Paralympic captain for Australia’s team. I was made a wheelchair that I had properly made when I returned back to the United States. I coached college football but started playing wheelchair ball more competitively. I really enjoyed it and picked it up pretty quickly. But the only way I could reach my potential was if I played basketball 5 days a week in a collegiate program. So, the University of Arizona offered me a scholarship and I came out and have been here ever since.
How did you actually start playing adaptive sports?
When I was a kid I was super competitive. I could always throw the football better than anyone else , but I just couldn’t run fast. I was not allowed to play sports because of my disability, which is Arthrogryposis, an irregular curve of the joints. I can’t bend my hips, knees or ankles. First, I decided to become an announcer for local high school teams. At San Diego State University, I decided I was going to become a physical therapist and work with disabled people. I still didn’t know about adaptive sports. While at San Diego, I sat in a coaching football class, the coaches said, “you are so passionate about football, why don’t you start coaching then?” The idea of coaching had never occurred to me before. I loved it! It was my number one drive. First, I started coaching the high school football teams. But, I wasn’t getting the job interviews for the head coaching jobs I thought I should be getting. I thought it was because of my disability. I decided to get my master’s degree in sports psychology. That way I could have it on my resume, saying “Master’s degree in education with an emphasis on sports psychology.” People would then say I look at sports from a different perspective because of the degree.
While in Australia, I was introduced to disabled sports. In Australia, it doesn’t matter whether you are disabled or not, there are sports for everyone. Men, women, etc. If you want to compete, you can compete. They even have senior citizen rugby, it’s crazy! In Australia, I even coached American football. I was offered to coach the First American Football World Cup and they sent me to Sicily to coach the Australian team playing against Canada, Mexico and Japan, and some other countries as well. One day, I got a call from a local disabled sports team that needed a sports psychologist for their team. I knew they picked me because of my experience with disabled sports. The coach of that team owned a wheelchair company and decided to make me one for my work as a gift, because I wasn’t getting paid during my internship.
Football was my primary goal, but I also did fall in love with disabled sports and it eventually pulled me away from football. I still love football, but I thought as a coach I could do more impact in disabled community (Editor’s Note: Coach Hughes is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan!).
What has adaptive sports in general done for you?
It changed my life! I am a motivational speaker now; I have my own business in medical devices ; and I coach. I am definitely more confident. Anybody should have the opportunity to first play, second to be healthy (haha!) and third to compete. You give a guy a sports wheelchair, it changes his world. The first time I got in a wheelchair, I got motion sickness, because I had never moved that fast before. It was a weird sensation.
What are your long term aspirations?
First and primary is my family, my kids and my wife. Second, I‘d like to spread the word on the positive benefits of disabled sports throughout the world through the Wheelchair Athletes Worldwide, a non-profit that ABC Medical helps promote. I‘m employing individuals with disabilities, I’d like to have it more self-sufficient, so that I can go in as a speaker and do the paperwork. I’d like to continue to go to championships and continue to get my athletes ready to compete in Paralympics and other international events.
You are coaching kids too…
I coordinate the JAWS Program, Juniors Athletes Wheelchair Sports Program. Unfortunately, JAWS practices on the same time as I have my practice with my ladies. So, I am just the coordinator. We are just trying to get the word out with that team now. It is really important for individuals with new spinal cord injuries to go out there and play with each other. With JAWS we provide that opportunity to kids. Just because you are born with a disability, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are not born athletic. Your athleticism trait might be what makes you go. We have to give kids as much opportunity as possible.
I look at my disabled sport career now and I wonder what would have happened if I had started playing when I was 5 or 10 years old. I was always better than an average ball player during my day. It was already too late when I started playing. I don’t like the fact that people can miss that opportunity. As coaches, we have to make sure that parents know that disabled sports are available for their kids. We should always ask parents, “Do you know about disabled sports?” That’s why I like working with ABC because they promote non-profits and adaptive sports.
What did you wish people knew about adaptive sports?
I just wished they knew it existed. I have a friend that can’t bend her arms or legs. But, she is an artist! She is a mouth painter. She paints with her mouth! That’s what she was meant to do. If someone hadn’t told her that she can paint with her mouth, we would have lost her artwork today. That’s the same thing with disabled sports. They never know about it; they will never get an opportunity to try it. With sports, you’re not going to change the world or something, but they may change themselves, which can eventually change the world. If you are feeling better about yourself, because you have the opportunity to exercise and or compete, that’s great. It’s a huge difference!
What are some of your international experiences through wheelchair basketball?
I used to raise money for myself and a couple friends to be able to play in international tournaments. We went to Mexico, Canada and also Cyprus. Let me take a moment there to tell you more about Cyprus and share my short trip to Istanbul with you. I played wheelchair basketball for a team called San Diego Express several years ago. It was maybe 2002 or 2003. We flew to the Island of Cyprus. We had a 10 hour layover in Istanbul. A guy from our team asked us if we wanted to visit the city. I said “Yeah, let’s do this!” They were charging us $120 for the day. Years later, we went back again to Cyprus and we spent a lot of time in Istanbul, Turkey after the trip to Cyprus. I was even invited over for a dinner at a friend’s family’s house and got to try that dessert with chicken that Turks love!
You had some local Turkish experience over there then! That sounds great!
Turkey has a professional basketball program now. The director had contacted us, we went through the NWBA. And we went over there. Some of our top players are playing on Turkish Teams now, for example Matt Scott.
That all started because we went to Cyprus and drank Raki, Turks’ national drink, with the other players!
So, including Cyprus, we traveled to a lot of places and enjoyed the different experiences. But, my wife one day said, “you can’t just go play basketball and come back, it’s ridiculous.” I understood why she said that. My friends and I decided that we still wanted to see the world and play wheelchair basketball. We established the Worldwide Athletes Worldwide. On the board, we are all athletes, coaches, paralympians or ex-paralympians. We find a place that has the need of wheelchairs in the world. We take sports chairs with us and donate chairs directly to a non-profit that can start a disabled program or if there is one already it can benefit from having better chairs or proper coaching principles. That’s how we ended up going to India last Thanksgiving.
Is your wife ok with this slight change in the mission?
Yes, she is ok now! We are not just going to places to play.
Have you seen any progress in the Indian Project?
They said they were planning to have a Disabled Awareness Day at some point this year and were going to give chairs for everyone try them out and see how they feel about it.
This year, we are going to Nepal. Nepal has a wheelchair basketball program. Their chairs are old and an everyday chair is not the right tool to play sports in. But obviously you just make do, so we are trying to provide these guys with that opportunity. We are also trying to change perceptions of the able body counterparts. If we can show them that we shoot better than able body counterparts, their confidence might boost and they might start to believe in themselves.
Do you have someone you look up to?
My parents would be my heroes, obviously. They died when I was young. My mom died when I was 17 and my dad died when I was 10. They always told me to stay on my own, to not take “no” for an answer, to always try and to not accept failure. There are other really important heroes out there too in our lives such as firefighters, policemen, etc. We don’t know about them until we give them a story.
How did you first become involved with ABC Medical?
I worked for a competitor and knew about you guys through the NWBA. I got to meet Keith Jones when you were at the Nationals and I had already left the competitor’s business then. He told me about the Advocate Program and I told him I’d be interested in. That’s how it started!
What’s your favorite thing about working with ABC?
Without a doubt, you are putting people and organizations first ahead of profits which is a key element why I am working with you guys. I’m sure as a business you have to do your best to be profitable, but you guys are willing to cut profits to do the right thing. In this age, it is the other way around. That’s why I like ABC!
I collect comic books, I play with my kids.. All the time! I do some hand cycling to stay in shape. I also hike a lot with my family.
Pete, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure speaking with you!
Hope everyone will enjoy reading this post!
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