Jay Ross watched the action out the window from his hospital bed. He sat in his room at the long-term-care Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford — unable to walk after a motorcycle accident weeks earlier — as the annual Gaylord Gauntlet took place across the 400-acre campus. The 5k mud run and obstacle course is the biggest fundraiser for the Gaylord Sports Association and draws nearly 1,000 participants.

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The Sports Association at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare helped Jay Ross get back into physical competition following a motorcycle accident.

Ross was in a dark place. “His nurse was like, ‘Hey, that’s gonna be you next year,’ ” says Katie Joly, the Sports Association program manager. “And he’s like, ‘No way.’ He had no idea what his life had in store for him.” That was June 2018. Ross would soon find out about the Sports Association while doing physical therapy. An athlete and gym rat before the accident, Ross signed up.

The Gaylord Sports Association is the largest adaptive sports program in the state and is open to anyone 16 years old and up with a physical disability or visual impairment. The 15 sports offered, mostly free of cost, include archery, golf, sled hockey and quad rugby, among others.

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There are physical benefits for people of all ages and abilities to participate in sports, but for those who suffer a life-altering injury or medical episode, it goes much deeper. “For me it was more emotional and mental,” says Ross, a Watertown resident. “To actually do it, to see that the equipment they have I’m able to get on and do the actual act, instead of just watching on the sideline, helped me out tremendously.”

And his nurse was right. This past summer Ross was the featured adaptive athlete in the Gaylord Gauntlet, calling it “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” Using an all-terrain wheelchair and accompanied by a team of therapists and his sons, Ross completed the course. “Passing that finish line was like … words can’t even describe. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Ross says. “I’m still here, I can still do this.”

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Adaptive sports athletes Eileen Hasson, of Rocky Hill, left, and Brett Smith, of Simsbury, belong to the Gaylord Sports Association at Gaylord Specialty Health Care in Wallingford. Hasson, who suffered a stroke four years ago, participates in various sports including bicycling and archery. After being paralyzed in an accident five years ago, Smith now participates in adaptive rugby.

Eileen Hasson of Rocky Hill had a stroke almost four years ago at the age of 50, leaving her left side weak and balance an issue. Hasson says she was always very active, but after the stroke found herself sitting around. “Even just walking is a challenge after a stroke,” Hasson says. “You have to think about every step you take, how high you lift your foot.”

She’s willing to try anything Gaylord has to offer and has taken up kayaking, waterskiing, cycling and rock climbing. “Climbing a rock wall, I mean, just think about it,” Hasson says. “When you’re not disabled it’s challenging. But then to be able to do it, it’s pretty amazing.”

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Rugby is the sport that’s helped Simsbury’s Brett Smith the most. The 35-year-old Marine veteran broke his neck swimming five years ago when he hit a rock underwater. Smith competes with the Jammers team at Gaylord but is also part of a nationwide team through the Oscar Mike Foundation, a paralyzed veterans group. “Gaylord, and especially rugby itself, was incredibly pivotal in me regaining my confidence,” Smith says.

Playing with the Oscar Mike team, which competes in a different state each month, has gotten Smith into traveling. In January he spent a week on his own in Jacksonville, Florida. His wife was unable to accompany him because she was eight months pregnant with their first child. It was Smith’s first solo plane trip since his injury.

“Being physically capable and then not being physically capable, and figuring out where your new life is and how you fit into this, playing rugby is really important for that,” Smith says. “It gives you a sense of physicality again.” 


Gaylord's upcoming adaptive events

March 28: Hoops for Jammers basketball tournament fundraiser, Healthtrax Fitness, North Haven

April 4: Annual adaptive climbing clinic, Prime Climb, Wallingford

May 2: Annual adaptive cycle clinic, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven

May 19: Disabled military veterans fishing tournament, Candlewood Lake, Danbury

June 1: Gaylord Golf Classic fundraiser, The Farms Country Club, Wallingford

June 15: Ken Murphy Memorial Open, adaptive golf tournament, The Farms Country Club, Wallingford

June 27: Gaylord Gauntlet fundraiser, 5K Obstacle Mud Run, Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, Wallingford

More info: 203-284-2772, gaylord.org/sports

This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram@connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.