MSU and Dwarf Sports: The Back Story
By Len Sawisch, Co-Founder of DAAA
Until the mid 1980's, the sports career for athletes with dwarfism in America was pretty predictable. Many young dwarf children with athletic desire could participate in organized sport and recreation activity in their local schools and communities. Most of these opportunities, however, would begin to close as these children reached the later grades of primary school. The growing disadvantages of size and body proportion differences meant only the most athletically gifted dwarf children in early adolescence would find organized sports fulfilling. Even these elite athletes, entering high school, would find almost no competitive sport opportunity at a varsity level. For most dwarfs in America, unless you wanted to be a jockey or big time wrestler, your athletic career pretty much ended when adolescence began.
The reason was pretty simple: the relatively low incidence of dwarfism made the provision of competitive amateur sports opportunities on a local basis logistically difficult. As a result, most sports programs and thus most dwarfs and their parents, didn't take sports seriously. But what about a national sports association dedicated to dwarf athletics?
Early in 1984, representatives of the International Disabled Games came to Mid-Michigan to ask the Little People of America Foundation President about recruiting dwarf athletes to the 1984 U.S. Team. The issue was how to identify athletes with elite potential. Unfortunately, the answer wasn't immediately available. But there was an opportunity, literally just down the road. The next year (1985) the Cerebral Palsy/Les Autres National Games were to be held on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. With a strong commitment to inclusion and diversity, MSU was one of the few facilities in the country at that time with enough accessibility features to host such an event.
A decision was made to offer some sport events at the CP/LA Games where dwarf athletes would only compete against other dwarf athletes. A formal invitation to compete was then made to the dwarf community at a special event during the 1984 Little People of America National Convention. Over 30 dwarf athletes accepted the invitation to East Lansing to compete in the 1985 CP/LA National Games on the MSU campus. The events exclusive to dwarf athletes included Basketball, Powerlifting, Track (60m and 100m), Field (shot put, discus, and javelin), Swimming (25m and 50m freestyle and backstroke), and Table Tennis.
This first ever Olympic style national sports competition for dwarf athletes was electrifying! Providing organized athletic opportunities exclusively for dwarf athletes became an imperative, and the Dwarf Athletic Association of America was formed before any of the participants left the MSU campus. The rest is history. Dwarf sports became a regular part of LPA National Conference plans from then on. The first dwarf athletes made the US Paralympic Team in 1988. The first Paralympic Gold Medal won by a US dwarf athlete was in 1992, (Camille Black-Waddell - at the time a Lansing resident). The first World Dwarf Games were hosted by DAAA in 1993. The International Dwarf Athletics Federation was formed at those Games, and organized dwarf sports became an international movement.
As a result, every dwarf child born in America over the last thirty years has had a reasonable opportunity to compete at a national and international level; to carry a sport career well beyond adolescence. Taken seriously as athletes has also opened professional careers in other sports related areas like coaching, and athletic training, and sports administration. And now we invite the World back to where it all started; back to East Lansing, Michigan; back to the Michigan State University campus for what will be the largest sporting event in history exclusively for dwarf athletes!