Two student athletes were surprised with custom chairs and a chance to play alongside Paralympic gold medalists Wednesday.

JACKSON TWP. Elena Knowles beamed as she rolled onto the basketball court at Jackson Memorial Middle School.


Knowles, 14, has been playing wheelchair basketball for about three years. On Wednesday, she got the chance to play alongside two of the sports biggest stars in her own custom-made chair.


"It was so cool. It was very cool," she said.


Knowles, of North Canton, was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder, about three years ago.


She and 6-year-old Devon Burks of Jackson Township, were two student athletes surprised at an assembly Wednesday with custom adaptive sports wheelchairs .


"He was having so much fun. Eyes as big as ever," said Burk’s father, Donnie Burks.


Devon, who has cerebral palsy, loves basketball. He and his siblings play on a wheelchair basketball team.


"He eats, sleeps and talks about basketball all day, every day," Donnie Burks said.


The Hartford, an investment group and insurance company based in Hartford, Conn., donated the chairs as well as $40,000 to the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio.


The funds were used to purchase 10 sports wheelchairs and launch a new wheelchair basketball team in Jackson Local Schools.


The company’s Ability Equipped program works to provide adaptive sports equipment and grants to athletes and organizations around the country.


Paralympians


Paralympic gold medalist Megan Blunk presented the chairs and played in a friendly match alongside student athletes.


Jake Williams, a gold medalist with the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team, joined the fun.


The students beat a team of Jackson Local teachers in a tight game.


"This sport is cooler than any sport I’ve ever played," said Blunk, who won a gold medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio as part of the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team.


Blunk grew up playing sports and "had the ability and talent to go as far as I wanted to." But depression and constant negative thoughts got in her way, she said.


"I started distancing myself from the things that scared me, like playing sports, and thinking I’d never be good enough," she said.


A month after graduating high school, Blunk was the passenger in a motorcycle accident. She was paralyzed from the waist down.


"I realized right then and there everything that I was capable of ... I wish that I would have pushed myself harder. I wish I would have tried and believed in myself, and I thought I was never going to have the chance again," she said.


Discovering wheelchair basketball was a "second chance at life."


"I wasn’t going to take it for granted," she said. "And that’s what I did. No matter how scared I was, I faced it."


"If it scares you, you should do it," she said.


"If it’s safe," she added quickly with a laugh.


New team


With the addition of Jackson, the state has six wheelchair basketball teams through the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio. Massillon and Plain Local also have teams.


Adaptive sports are life changing, said executive director Lisa Followay.


"When you have disability, everything is difficult because you live in a world that wasn’t made for you," she said.


Accessibility means removing obstacles that prevent someone from living their life, she said. "Providing a chair, starting a team, is tearing down a barrier."


Interscholastic wheelchair basketball is co-ed and open to students in first through 12th grade. The sport is open to any athlete with some form of disability that would limit them from playing on a typical basketball team. Teams can also have up to five non-disabled players.


Followay encouraged Jackson students to support the new team, which is still accepting players. She encouraged students to try out.


"Just because they play basketball a little bit different than traditional doesn’t mean it’s not competitive. It doesn’t mean it’s not cool." she said.


Reach Jessica at 330-580-8322 or jessica.holbrook@cantonrep.com


On Twitter: @jholbrookREP