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Sunday, November 27, 2022

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Nelya Schasfoort Nelya Schasfoort

Athlete Finds Confidence in Opportunity at SDSU

Freshman track standout Nelya Schasfoort finds community and confidence within the SDSU Adapted Athletics program.
By Lainie Fraser

“It started with the adapted program but as time went on I was thinking, ‘Wow, San Diego is great, SDSU is amazing, this is where I want to be.’ It was perfect.”

Entering its third year as a recognized collegiate adapted sports program and the first of its kind in the state, San Diego State University Adapted Athletics provides student-athletes with disabilities an opportunity to compete at the collegiate level.

One such student-athlete is Nelya Schasfoort, a freshman competing in track.

Schasfoort was recruited as a high school sophomore living in Ohio nearly three years ago by SDSU Adapted Athletics Program Director Ahkeel Whitehead. Whitehead visited her at a track meet, explained the program he had started and offered to help her apply to SDSU when the time was right. She wasn’t interested.

“I was just a sophomore in high school and I had no idea about college or any intentions so I turned him down,” said Schasfoort.
While in high school, Schasfoort was on the Para Pan American teams in 2015 and 2019, Junior Worlds teams in 2018 and 2019 and also became a World Record Holder in the 400-meter T/45 classification.

About a year later she was visiting family in Arizona and decided to take a side trip to San Diego.

“I was in San Diego for a day. I met with Ahkeel and we trained for the day and I was like, ‘I love this.’”

Schasfoort wound up spending the summer in San Diego training with Whitehead and exploring the city.

“That summer is when I told Ahkeel that when I was done with high school I wanted to come out to San Diego and I wanted to go to SDSU,” said Schasfoort. “I started looking at applying and majors and everything just started clicking. It started with the adapted program but as time went on I was thinking, ‘Wow, San Diego is great, SDSU is amazing, this is where I want to be.’ It was perfect.”

Schasfoort was born with arthrogryposis, which caused the muscles in her arms to not be fully developed at birth. 

“Everything takes extra work to do it,” said Schasfoort. “I may need a stool or a chair or to sit in an awkward position but it can all be done.”

Schasfoort says her confidence in her abilities comes from the supportive community she has found at SDSU.

“Now that I’m at a college with an adapted program, it is so nice to be with people who have disabilities,” said Schasfoort. “I can understand what they’re going through because we’re going through the exact same things. It has opened my eyes a lot more and I feel like it has made me a lot more confident. It is amazing that it is working out so nicely.”

SDSU Adapted Athletics, founded by Whitehead, SDSU Associate Professor of the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program Antoinette Domingo, and dedicated donor Keith Jones, is designed to increase access and opportunity for student-athletes with disabilities to play competitive sports in college. It currently has ten student-athletes who train and compete in events at the local, national and Paralympic level.

“I am so appreciative of Ahkeel,” said Schasfoort. “He is such an understanding man tries to meet the needs of everyone whether they are in the program, looking to join, or are dealing with COVID-related issues he is such a great person to have to look up to and to be around.”

With hopes of growing the program and expanding awareness around the rising demand for adapted sports, SDSU Adapted Athletics held a crowdfunding campaign last year, raising more than $19,500 that was matched by Jones. The main fundraising goal is to have $5 million raised through 2028.

The funds provide life-changing experiences to the program’s student-athletes and cover essential expenses, including travel and competition fees, athletic gear, wheelchair maintenance and more. All coaches, from strength and conditioning to physical therapy and nutrition, are volunteers.

According to Whitehead, one of the goals of SDSU Adapted Athletics is to turn SDSU into "Paralympian U," a play on words meaning SDSU produces high performing athletes that compete in the Paralympic Games.

“In Rio 2016, the U.S. Paralympic team had 267 athletes with California having the highest amount of 29,” said Whitehead. The SDSU program, he said, is well positioned to become a leading source of future team members.

Schasfoort now has her sights set on making the 2021 Paralympic Games. As she trains six days per week with Whitehead, she is embracing and enjoying her time as a member of the SDSU community.

“SDSU is a great school and everyone is so active physically and socially,” said Schasfoort. “Even now with the pandemic, I’m doing Zoom calls with classmates and friends. It is a big school with a lot of people and opportunities but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It feels comfortable.”