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Let the Games Begin


Amid COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, the founder of Angel City Sports adapts his athletics program for people with physical challenges
 

Clayton Frech (’98) founded Angel City Sports (@AngelCitySports) in honor of his now teenaged son Ezra (@teamezra05) — who was born missing his left knee and left fibula and wears a prosthesis — to provide opportunities for children, adults and veterans with physical disabilities to participate in sports.

The most visible manifestation of Frech’s work is the Angel City Games Presented by The Hartford, which was planned for June 18–21 at UCLA. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, Frech and his team made the difficult decision to suspend all programming through June. However, his team is actively planning a “pivot” whereby the games transform from a four-day weekend into a four-week virtual event this summer, with anybody and everybody welcome to participate.

His newest venture, Ampla Partners (@AmplaPartners), matches people with disabilities with economic opportunities, including college internships, post-college jobs, mid-career jobs, board positions and project work.


Q: The whole community is taking steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, observing physical distancing, washing our hands and taking other precautions as recommended by doctors and other health care experts. Are there any additional considerations or issues faced by those with physical differences and impairments?

Definitely. I see four primary challenges with the COVID-19 crisis that are unique to the disabled community.

First of all, a significant number of people with disabilities have underlying health challenges. For example, the largest driver of lower leg amputations is complications from diabetes, and diabetes puts you in the higher risk category.

Second, many people in our community have mobility challenges. The pure logistics of getting to the store needed to be carefully planned prior to the coronavirus crisis. Now stores are packed with shoppers and many stores in every neighborhood are pretty empty [of groceries]. This means more store visits are required to make sure you have what you need. People are not really being as careful as they could be, which adds more risk to the simple trip to the store.

Third, it can be more challenging to maintain good hygiene when you have a disability. In general, this community is very innovative and clever, and hygiene, for many, was already very important. My son Ezra got a staph infection on his stump about a year ago and they almost had to operate on his leg to scrape the infection off the bone. Wheelchair users have wheels that are in touch with the ground at all times, so it’s inherently challenging to keep your hands clean.

Last, people with disabilities are relatively high consumers of health care services. This puts them in harm’s way if they have to go to the hospital for any non-coronavirus medical issue. For example, I have a friend who is a quadriplegic who has had over 20 life-threatening infections that have necessitated ER visits (he averages more than one ER trip a year).

Q: Individuals with physical challenges sometimes rely on caregivers for assistance. How do people who need this kind of help right now get it?

Angel City Sports founder Clayton Frech (’98) (right) with his son Ezra

The vast majority of people we serve — who include amputees, stroke victims and those with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, MS, MD, visual impairments and blindness, dwarfism — are entirely independent. Some do rely on family for their care, and a few folks in our community rely on part-time or full-time caregivers. This presents a huge challenge, given the caregivers generally go home to their families and communities, further adding risk of passing the virus on to their client. Social distancing seems impossible in this scenario. We are struggling to “social distance” at Trader Joe’s, so how is a caregiver going to do that?

Q: Your work involves providing sports and recreational opportunities to those with physical challenges. Do you have any recommendations for how this population can continue to get exercise, work out and just participate in recreational activities at a time when everyone is more or less homebound?

I recently wrote a blog post for Angel City Sports that outlined my 10 B’s to Managing a Crisis, and one of the “B’s” is Be Active. We believe that physical health is the foundation for life success, on and off the field of play. Keeping people healthy and physically active is very important right now, more important than it was before the coronavirus. At Angel City Sports, we have already started promoting daily workouts for both ambulatory and seated individuals. We will provide, remotely, sport-specific exercises, training and challenges. And the beauty of building this online is that literally anybody can participate. We pride ourselves on providing free sports training, equipment and competitive opportunities, and that will continue. And we welcome anyone in the UCLA Anderson community to follow us and do our workouts and programs.

Q: What was it like to cancel and then pivot the Angel City Games that were scheduled for June?

We made the decision on March 12. We hosted a call with doctors, lawyers and board members with the original intention of suspending programming for a couple of weeks. Within 15 minutes we all realized we needed to suspend all programming through June, including the games. We felt the need to get ahead of the virus, and give ourselves a little breathing room. The world is just moving so fast. By the following week, we didn’t feel like we had canceled far enough out.

At that moment, nobody in our industry had really canceled anything in June, so it felt unnerving to be out that far. It was a surprisingly emotional decision for me. I know there are bigger things to worry about right now, but it just felt terrible to cancel the games … I was an emotional mess for a few days. The Angel City Games is part of my DNA, part of my soul, and we know how much our athletes from all over the country and some foreign countries look forward to these transformational four days of sport, community and inspiration. However, we have been working hard to create the Angel City Virtual Games Presented by The Hartford this summer, that will be really unique and innovative.

Q: What will the virtual games look like? What is your team planning?

The 2020 [event] is going to be really cool. Our vision is to recreate as much of the [regular] games as possible, including the sport clinics and competitions, special events and community building. We have turned these four days into four weeks! The first week is being planned for late June, and then the next three weeks will pop over the summer. Each week will have a few sport clinics, as well as a sport challenge. We will have a Resource Night each week with a different theme, such as Career, Education, Health and Wellness, and Personal Development. We will have TED-style speakers, family activities and a virtual Fun Run & Roll!

The great thing about this pivot to a virtual games is that everybody can participate. Yes, our mission is to serve athletes with disabilities, but we welcome able-bodied friends, family and community members to join us this year.

Q: What else concerns you right now?

We did a survey of our community of athletes, volunteers and supporters and found some interesting insights: 49% reported that staying mentally strong was a challenge, 42% reported economic and financial challenges, and a full 72% reported that they don’t have what they need to stay physically active at home. And 28% are struggling to stay physically active.

[Meanwhile], people reported being 20% more in contact with friends and family, so that’s a positive. And 95% are social distancing, which is obviously good for public and personal health.

Years ago I read a great book of survival stories. The folks that survived all believed they were going to survive. If there is one thing we can all do, it is to be optimistic that we are going to get through this crisis. It may take a while, and it may be painful, but we will get through this. And I believe we will get through it stronger if we are united.

Q: How can people get involved in your efforts? Are there volunteer opportunities? What support do you need?

We’re always looking for volunteers to help with programming, community outreach, marketing and fundraising, as well as corporate sponsors. Specifically, we would love to connect to folks willing to share their expertise around health and wellness, music and the arts, mindfulness, career planning and education attainment. Anyone interested can message us on social media @AngelCitySports, sign up for emails at www.angelcitysports.org or reach out to me directly at clayton@angelcitysports.org.

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