COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT: Michael Garafola
When Michael Garafola first dreamed up the idea of an Adaptive, Paralympic-style event to be held in Southern California at a world-class venue like the campus of UCLA, he thought back to a time in his youth when he could have benefited from something like the Angel City Games.
The 4th annual Angel City Games at UCLA recently concluded on June 24th. Garafola, the UCLA Recreation Adaptive Programs Coordinator and Angel City Games Co-Founder and the incredible ACG leadership team, along with hundreds of dedicated volunteers welcomed more than 300 adaptive athletes with physical disabilities from 19 states and 3 countries over the course of the 4 day competition.
In 1990, 15-year-old Garafola had just entered his sophomore year of high school when he was injured in an automobile accident which left him paralyzed. “Before my accident I loved being an athlete. I was the captain of my freshman basketball team, a multiple time basketball all star. I snow skied, water skied, played soccer, I was a junior lifeguard … you name and I did it,” said the native Staten Island, New Yorker. “But from 1990 to 2003 sports were gone from my life. While I filled it with other positive things, I always felt that something was missing. Like many people, I didn’t know about adaptive sports or what the Paralympics were. I wish there was an Angel City Games when I was growing up in New York.”
Garafola moved west to Los Angeles in 1999 to work in the music industry and it wasn’t long before he came across a brochure for the Lakers wheelchair basketball team. “I wanted to know what this was all about,” he said. “When I entered the gym, I was blown away! I couldn’t believe I could play sports competitively again! While I got a late start to the adaptive sports game, I was so fortunate to have found it. Basketball was my passion and now it was back in my life. It was like a rebirth; my competitive fire was back!”
Soon after, Garafola heard of UCLA Adaptive Sports & Recreation and began participating in their programs. After volunteering and then working part time for a few years, the position of Adaptive Programs Coordinator opened. Garafola interviewed for the position and was asked if he would consider going back to school to receive a Therapeutic Recreation Certificate. He enrolled at Long Beach State, completed the necessary course work & has been the UCLA Recreation Adaptive Programs Coordinator ever since.
Garafola and his friend and Angel City Games Co-Founder, Clayton Frech, wanted to expand what UCLA currently offered students and the community in adaptive athletics, and soon found themselves pitching UCLA administrators on the idea of the Angel City Games. Frech’s son Ezra was born with a congenital limb difference. Despite his disability, Ezra is an elite adaptive track & field athlete.
“In 2015, the first year of the Games, we started with 2 sports: Wheelchair Basketball and Track and Field. Our idea was to have a clinic where new athletes could learn from experienced athletes, Paralympians and coaches, try new adaptive sports and then compete in those sports at the same event,” said Garafola. “Last year we decided to add 3 more sports. Angel City Games now showcases 5 sports: Wheelchair Basketball, Wheelchair Tennis, Track and Field, Archery & Swimming, all in 4 days at UCLA.”
About three and a half years ago, Garafola tried wheelchair tennis for the first time, and was immediately hooked. “There’s something so unique about tennis,” said Garafola, who joined the Northridge Knights Wheelchair team (sponsored by Northridge Hospital) and tried to find as many opportunities to play the game in Southern California and beyond. “I really enjoy being on the tennis court. Managing your emotions and maintaining your mental focus throughout a tennis match is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in other sports I’ve played. It’s just you & your thoughts… and I think that’s why I love it so much.”
Garafola relies on the support of both the USTA National office, as well as the SCTA. “It seems like they get it,” he said. “They understand the importance of starting grassroots programs, finding and developing new talent and plugging in to community partners that make sense; with a collective mission of growing the sport of wheelchair tennis.”
Garafola credited friend and recently retired Annette Buck and friend and coach Cari Buck, SCTA Executive Director Linda Milan, Tiffany Geller-Reed and Coach Dee Henry with providing support for anything wheelchair tennis related.
“It’s like a tight-knit family, and the support we’ve gotten from people like Annette Buck, Cari Buck, Coach Dee Henry (among others) is amazing. We couldn’t do it without their help,” he said, adding. “We need to keep expanding the sport of wheelchair tennis by finding new talent, and that’s where Angel City Games has helped. We need to keep spreading the word by finding those kids, like me, who thought sports were gone forever. I want to give others the opportunities that I didn’t have to get back in to sport. No one with a physical disability should be sitting on the sidelines watching if they want to play.”
To learn more about Angel City Games, go to: http://www.angelcitygames.org/About/