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Naturally Impactful: Therapeutic Recreation Offers Connection & Competition For Athletes of All Abilities

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Naturally Impactful: Therapeutic Recreation Offers Connection & Competition For Athletes of All AbilitiesAll photos provided by Cornelius Oatis.
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Cornelius Oatis almost didn’t start playing the sport at which he’s the best in the country. He was playing four foot hoops basketball at his rec center when the coach announced they would soon introduce a new sport called boccia.

“He looked at me and he asked me, Cornelius, are you gonna come out and try it? At first I was like, I don’t know about it because, you know, I’d never heard about it,” said Oatis. “I went up to the center just to work out or whatever and then I came downstairs and he was like, you want to try it or not? So I tried it and I became good at it.”

That was in 2009. Today, Oatis, a 32-year-old Chicago native who’s lived in Columbus since childhood, is a member of the USA National Boccia Team and is America’s number 1 athlete in boccia classification BC1. He’s competed for Team USA in Canada, Ireland and China, and has been invited to the Boccia International Sports Federation (BISFed) 2017 World Open in Kansas City.

“Hopefully we’ll come back with some medals,” said Oatis.

Boccia, one of only two Paralympic sports that has no Olympic counterpart, was invented in Italy as a sport for people who, like Oatis, have cerebral palsy. It was introduced to international competition at the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York and today is played by athletes with a wide range of motor skill impairments. The sport involves rolling differently colored leather balls so that they stop as close as possible to a white target ball, or “jack.” It’s a game of painstaking precision, which requires painstaking practice.

Oatis practices two to three times a week through Columbus Recreation and Parks’ Therapeutic Recreation Program. It was through this same program that Oatis first started playing boccia.

“The therapeutic department is…I would say it’s one of the best programs Columbus has to offer,” said Oatis. “People with disabilities and non-disability…it offers so many different activities.”

For 21 years, the Therapeutic Recreation Program has provided opportunities for people to participate in sports and recreational activities regardless of ability or disability. In addition to boccia, the program offers  a variety of sports including sled hockey, track and field, and wheelchair football, basketball and rugby.

“Participation by people with disabilities in sports and recreational activities promotes inclusion, minimizes deconditioning, optimizes physical functioning, and enhances overall well-being,” said Mary Beth Moore, Therapeutic Recreation Manager, in an email. “Psychological benefits include opportunities to form social connections through friendships and comradery, express creativity, and develop a self-identity.”

According to Moore, the program started with only two staff members and 30 participants.

“Through community assessments and partnerships, listening to what the community wanted, and utilizing current trends in Community Therapeutic Recreation we have evolved to what we have today,” said Moore.

Oatis, who has participated in the Therapeutic Recreation Program since the late 1990’s, is pleased with how the program has evolved in its 21 years.

“I just feel like from then to now it’s like, the sky’s the limit,” said Oatis. “Every day somebody wants to try something different and that’s what we’re all about, trying different things. If somebody wants to come to our door and try something different we’re gonna offer the nudge to let them try it.”

Today, Oatis not only participates in the program’s sports and recreational activities, he also helps with Quest, an after school program for middle and high school aged youth operated by Therapeutic Recreation.

Moore said it “gives me tingles” to think about how Oatis started his boccia career with the Therapeutic Recreation Program.

“I get a huge feeling of satisfaction that we are able to make a difference,” said Moore. “I am very proud of Cornelius and the other athletes that have put the time, commitment and energy into their sport of choice and the support that we have been able to offer.”

For Oatis, the best parts of the program are the personal connections, the networking and the friendships.

“Getting out and getting to know different people, getting the sport out there…talking to people,” said Oatis.

When it comes to boccia, however, “I would say the most out of everything I enjoy is the competitiveness.”

“You know, outside the sport, I’m a real nice person,” promised Oatis. But as soon as he’s in the playing box, things change.

CRPDLogowith_MayorNaturally Impactful is brought to you by the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, which works to enrich and change the lives of our citizens. The column is an effort to share the story of how the pillars of Health and Wellness, Conservation and Social Equity drive the work we do. Each month the column will focus on different sections of the department using these pillars to create a positive impact on our residents’ and visitors’ quality of life along with providing basic knowledge of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, #CRPD. To find more about upcoming happenings at your Columbus Recreation and Parks, visit their Facebook page, Twitter page, or columbus.gov/recreationandparks.

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