Let the Dairyland Games begin

One fateful classroom visit led to the creation of Dairyland Games and its operating nonprofit, both of which provide opportunities for athletes with disabilities to play and compete in sporting events.
runners on a field
Photos by Dave Wolff

Jacob Graboski still remembers the day that the national chairman of Adaptive Sports USA, Gregg Baumgarten, visited his Adapted Fitness and Personal Training program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Baumgarten was recruiting volunteers to create a junior national adaptive sporting event in the Midwest. That experience played a role in Graboski’s pursuit of a physical therapy degree.

Soon after, Graboski and Deb Jenks served as lead members along with Baumgarten in creating Wisconsin’s first and only multi-sport competition that qualifies athletes (ages 6-22) with physical and visual disabilities for the Move United Junior Nationals. The event, first held in 2016, was named the Dairyland Games, which later became part of Dairyland Sports, a nonprofit co-founded by Graboski and Jenks. Dairyland Sports also creates opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to learn and play sports between the games. Sixteen athletes competed in track and field at the inaugural event. Slowly but surely, other sports have been added to the games, including swimming and archery. The most recent event in 2019 had about 75 participants from eight states with more than 350 entries.

“[The Dairyland Games are] for athletes who have physical impairments but don’t necessarily fit into Special Olympics,” says Graboski.

Graboski says it is a competition “for people who want to make it to the Paralympics someday,” but newcomers are also welcome. One Dairyland Games participant earned a silver medal at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games. Other participants blossom into athletes during the Dairyland Games.

Graboski remembers one kid whose parents signed him up to compete in swimming and track. The child didn’t live near anyone with similar abilities. He was too shy to compete in a swim event and was unsure how to interact with other kids on day one, but by day two of the games he was fist-bumping down the line of the 100-meter dash.

“That’s the kind of stuff we live for — seeing that one athlete each year … find something that they’re passionate about,” he says.

The list of training and events Dairyland Sports offers mirrors a Paralympic program: Track events (like the 100-meter and 1,600-meter dashes), field events (like javelin, shot put, discus and long jump), swimming, archery and powerlifting are among the competitions. In addition to the Dairyland Games, the nonprofit organizes Mindful Movements, a mental skills, home exercise and fitness training program. Dairyland Sports’ leadership team also hopes to partner with Mad City Badgers in December to put on a wheelchair basketball tournament.

Graboski says the United States has lagged in supporting athletes in adaptive sports compared to the rest of the world. His nonprofit wants to increase the number of athletes competing in adaptive sports and make the social and physical aspects of those experiences available to everyone.

“Adaptive sport is athleticism, it is competition,” says Graboski. “The benefit you get from being able to throw on a pair of basketball shoes and hang out with friends at a gym — everyone should be able to enjoy that. That’s adaptive sport.”

Read about more adaptive sports in the Madison area here.

Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine