SPECIAL REPORT: Making Fort Wayne the adaptive sports capital of America

Turnstone host international blind sports federation

In 2019, delegations from up to 40 countries will travel to Fort Wayne to attend the largest international event ever held in the city.

Fort Wayne’s own Turnstone center for people with disabilities won the bid for the International Blind Sports Federation’s Goalball and Judo Paralympic Qualifying Competition.

Goalball is a team sport similar to soccer designed exclusively for athletes who are blind or visually impaired. It will be played at Turnstone’s world-class Plassman Athletic Center at 3320 N. Clinton St. and at Indiana Tech. Judo, an adaptation of Japanese martial arts for the blind, will take place at the Grand Wayne Convention Center downtown.

From June 28th to July 10th, an expected 400 to 500 athletes with visual impairments will visit Fort Wayne to compete for a chance to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Receiving this bid for the Paralympic Qualifiers is not the first time Turnstone has been recognized in the international community for its adaptive sports.

The U.S. Olympic Committee designated Turnstone as its 7th U.S. Paralympic Training Site for current and future Paralympic athletes. Turnstone is also the home of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s national goalball teams.

With such recognition, Turnstone and its partners aspire to make Fort Wayne the Adaptive Sports Capital of America.

Turnstone is home to the U.S. Men’s and Women’s national goalball teams.

Welcoming athletes of all abilities

To attract adaptive sports competitions, Turnstone works in partnership with Visit Fort Wayne, a nonprofit organization focused on the city’s economic development.

According to Visit Fort Wayne, the Summit City has been known in the region as a destination for youth sports with local facilities such as the Spiece Fieldhouse and SportOne Parkview Fieldhouse.

In 2014, Visit Fort Wayne conducted a study with the city to determine how to increase sports tourism. One recommendation from the study suggested that with Turnstone, Fort Wayne is in the position to fill a niche for an all-inclusive sports community.

Throughout its 75 years in operation, Turnstone has provided comprehensive services such as rehabilitation therapy, adult day services, memory care services, and more to people of all abilities and all ages.

According to Mike Mushett, CEO of Turnstone, during their last fiscal year the center serviced more than 3,600 individuals with unique disabilities.

When Turnstone expanded in 2015 with the Plassman Athletic Center, a 120,000-square-foot adaptive sports center and training facility, it was able to open its doors to athletes from all over the country and globe who want to compete in adaptive events.

Sports Planning Guide called it one of the top 10 best Adaptive Sports Facilities in the nation.

Turnstone's state-of-the-art Plassman Athletic Center is the fourth largest Paralympic Sport Club in the United States.

With Visit Fort Wayne as its marketing partner, Turnstone has won the bids in recent years to host regional and national competitions in adaptive sports such as goalball, power soccer, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby.

According to totals reported by Visit Fort Wayne and Turnstone, during the last year, these events brought more than 4,000 visitors to the city with an economic impact of more than $1 million.

Record-breaking competition

This year, Turnstone hosted Junior Nationals, its largest multi-sport competition to-date until the upcoming International Paralympic Qualifiers.

From July 22nd to July 27th, 220 athletes from 31 states came to Fort Wayne to compete in a paratriathlon, archery, powerlifting, swimming, table tennis, track and field, and shooting.

Turnstone hosts adaptive sports competitions.

Junior Nationals covered multiple venues, not only Turnstone’s facilities, but Homestead High School, the Helen P. Brown Natatorium at South Side High School, and Indiana Tech. Five local athletes even set a combined 11 national records in discus distance, javelin distance, shot distance, breaststroke, freestyle, and long jump.

Mushett says the event was a success, in large part, thanks to more than 350 volunteers who committed more than 3,000 hours to hosting Junior Nationals alone.

“The willingness to volunteer in Fort Wayne is really special and allows us to bid on events like this,” Mushett says. “We would not be able to do these types of events without volunteer support.”

It takes a community

As Fort Wayne prepares to host major Paralympic sporting events and establish itself as the Adaptive Sports Capital of the nation, it’s going to take more than Turnstone to make it happen.

“When we bid on these events, it’s not just Turnstone; it’s the city of Fort Wayne,” Mushett says. “For events to be successful, the entire community needs to be engaged.”

To prepare for visiting athletes and their families coming to the city in 2019, Turnstone has conducted sensitivity training for Fort Wayne hospitality workers, such as hotel and restaurant staff, about how to accommodate visitors with disabilities.

The Center and other advocacy groups have also meet with civic leaders, developers, and architects about implementing universal, disability friendly designs into their plans for everything from new hotels to regional projects like Riverfront development.

“To be a leader in adaptive sports, we’re going to have to do more than the average, more than the minimum,” says Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne. “We don’t want just one extra-wide hotel room accessible for wheelchairs. We want 10. We have to go above the norm.”

The Plassman Athletic Center is a 75,000-square-foot fieldhouse with a 230-meter track and four collegiate sized basketball courts.

The AWS Foundation, another local nonprofit, provides grants for projects that strive to make northeast Indiana accessible to individuals of all disabilities, whether physical or intellectual.

According Patti Hays, CEO of the AWS Foundation, they assisted the Riverfront development team in placing guides along the paths to define the sidewalk for visitors who are visually impaired. They have also partnered to make the Sweet Breeze canal boat fully accessible so tourists with wheelchairs can easily move from the dock to the boat and utilize the bathrooms onboard.

Dan O’Connell says, “We want to create a whole community that is geared toward helping people with disabilities to feel normal, to feel successful, to feel challenged, and enjoy sports competitions.”

This Special Report was made possible by Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

Rob Evans
Rob Evans
General Manager
Holiday Inn Hotel, Fort Wayne

Since Rob Evans moved to Fort Wayne from Canada in 2008, he’s been General Manager of the Holiday Inn Hotel at 4111 Paul Shaffer Dr. near IPFW and Coliseum.

With more than 30 years of collective experience in the hospitality industry, Evans has worked for highly acclaimed establishments around the world in 10 states, three countries, and three provinces, including the world-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta, Canada.

But he chooses to live and work in Fort Wayne today for one simple reason: “Fort Wayne is the friendliest,” he says.

As the Summit City prepares to host its largest international event ever with the 2019 Goalball and Judo Paralympic Qualifying Competition, Evans is excited for the city to be put on display.

As a volunteer with Turnstone, the region’s sport and recreational center for people with disabilities, and a board member for Visit Fort Wayne, Evans has been a key member of the planning team bringing these events to the Summit City.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Evans to learn more about the culture of adaptive sports in Fort Wayne, and how the city plans to host an unprecedented number of international visitors and visually impaired athletes next year.

IFW: You volunteer at Turnstone’s adaptive sporting events in Fort Wayne. How did you first get interested and involved in adaptive sports?

RE: The first time I ever saw adaptive sports was about 15 years ago. I went to a sled hockey game, and I was kind of mad at myself, to be honest. I went into my first event thinking, “Oh, this will be a nice, sort of pass-the-puck kind of thing,” and I was so wrong.

The passion that these athletes play with is higher than most other sports I’ve ever seen—how aggressive they are with the checking.

I asked myself: Why was I thinking their passion would be any different than my own?

So 15 years ago, I got involved volunteering for adaptive sports. Then I moved to Fort Wayne 10 years ago from Canada, and Turnstone did their big expansion (with the Plassman Athletic Center) a few years back. That’s about the time I got more involved here.

IFW: What do you do when you volunteer with Turnstone?

RE: Anything they ask. When you show up, they assign you to different jobs.

My kids usually work in the concession stands. My last job was a tough one. They asked me to do crowd control at a track and field event at Homestead High School. So when all the families wanted to come down and stand in front of the fence to take pictures in front of their children in the race, I had to be the one to tell them, “You can’t do that.” (laughs) People were nice about it though, and we had fun with it.

So anytime you volunteer, you might be on crowd control, or you might be making sure that when the ball goes out of bounds, it’s brought back in bounds.

It’s no different than volunteering for any other sport, like when you’re a linesman for a high school volleyball game.

IFW: When did you first hear about Turnstone’s desire to host the international 2019 Goalball and Judo Paralympic Qualifying Competition in Fort Wayne?

RE: About a year or so ago. I’m in the hotel business, so on the business side of it all, you have to secure space, bedrooms, and then you go after the bid.

The city of Fort Wayne, Turnstone, Visit Fort Wayne, and the whole hospitality community have worked together to make this happen.

If it wasn’t for Turnstone having the vision to expand and do what they did, we wouldn’t have this opportunity. Visit Fort Wayne and Turnstone really came together and said, “How can we make this work?” Then they reached out to us as hospitality partners, and the Grand Wayne Center for space.

There’s all kinds of pieces to the puzzle. But we’re all very proud of Fort Wayne, Turnstone, the Grand Wayne Convention Center, and the quality of hotels and restaurants we have here. That all combined is a win-win for sure.

Having an international, worldwide conference like this is Fort Wayne, Indiana, is huge, and we deserve it. We deserve more of it, too. We’ve done a lot of work for years and years, and we want more.


IFW: With people coming from 40 countries to compete, there are likely to be language barriers. How do you plan to accommodate people of different languages in Fort Wayne’s hospitality industry?

RE: We deal with language barriers all the time. That’s why there’s direct flights from Indiana to Europe now because there are so many Europeans coming here. Just this morning, I was talking to a guy from Paris.

Most major hotel brands like the Holiday Inn have interpreter lines if we need to use them. When we’re hiring, people with second languages are something we look for, too.

Right now, we have employees who speak seven different languages at our hotel: Spanish, Burmese, and French, just to name a few. But I like to say that a handshake and a smile is the same no matter where you are.

If we’re treating everyone like ladies and gentlemen, if we’re opening doors and saying hello, and making eye contact and being pleasant, it doesn’t matter if we’re speaking or not speaking. That’s what we train people to do, and that’s what Fort Wayne as a whole is so good at, too.

We really are an All-American city. We’re proud people, and we know we’re fortunate to live in this city, so we want to share that.

This tournament is the perfect opportunity to share how happy and proud we are to be where we are, and how happy and proud we are for other people to see our home and how we live.


IFW: In addition to language services and politeness, what steps has the Holiday Inn taken to be more welcoming to people of all abilities?

RE: Turnstone has been in a number of times to do training on how to respectfully assist people with disabilities. We work with Visit Fort Wayne, too, and the Holiday Inn has a number of service training programs, so we just take advantage of it all.

We have a percentage of our rooms that are disability friendly. But what’s interesting about goalball guys, in particular, is that they don’t want to be treated any different. They might not be able to see, but that doesn’t mean they can’t see, you know. When they walk around the hotel, they know where the pool is, where the restaurant is. They’re just regular guys and gals that are athletes and want to win, so we don’t have to do a whole lot of changing for them.


IFW: What are some of the ways the city of Fort Wayne, in general, could be more accommodating to people of all abilities?

RE: Anytime you’ve got a city that has a number of buildings in the downtown area that are 150 years old next to brand new buildings, there are going to be struggles. The first thing someone thinks about for people with disabilities is wheelchairs, and that’s not always accurate. Within adaptive sports, only maybe 20 percent are in wheelchairs.

That said, doors and thresholds are the biggest struggle I’ve seen. Public restroom doors tend to be wide and heavy. If businesses could work toward making doors electronic and taking a look at thresholds (or seams where the flooring changes), that would be great.

All in all, Fort Wayne does very good, but the construction of some of the older buildings does make it a little more difficult.

One thing we’re really great at is being welcoming. Visit Fort Wayne gives us banners to put out, and we just use the “Cheers” philosophy. We want everybody to know your name.

When we know that athletes for something like Judo are coming to town, there will be a banner. It shows them that we’re expecting them, and we’re proud of them. You’ll see banners like this at a lot of the Hall’s businesses, too.

It’s just about local people doing the right thing because we want to and not because we’re told to.