Peterson’s advocacy paves way to Adapted Athletics
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2022 - 1:59 PM
During post-graduate work in the early 1980’s, Minneapolis educator and coach Cathy Peterson took an elective course in Adapted Athletics. As part of the coursework, her professor at Mankato State University had her students write an essay that described a student of theirs that was facing challenges. Peterson dug right in.
She shared the journey of a student that had been involved in a house fire. Virtually every part of the student’s body was permanently scarred because of the fire. Peterson provided vivid examples of how the student had limited movement because his skin didn’t stretch. In her paper, Peterson, who would spend her entire iconic career in the Minneapolis Public Schools, weaved in the challenges of other students that used wheelchairs and other types of aides to participate in physical education classes.
“Those are my students, my kids,” Peterson told Connect. “I was creating awareness with that paper. The professor was stunned. Within our coursework, heart issues, asthma, and maybe (cerebral palsy), were discussed, but nothing like we had daily in Minneapolis. I recall her asking, “Is this really true?” She drove up to see my classes for herself.”
Peterson, who would complete her master’s degree in 1984, would continue to be a tireless advocate for Adapted Athletics, not only at Minneapolis South where she spent the bulk of her career, but also a pioneer that advocated for co-curricular opportunities for students with special needs across the Minnesota State High School League. Peterson played a pivotal role as a member of the Board of Directors from 1991-95 when Adapted Athletics was being considered, and then ultimately, approved as a sanctioned activity by the Representative Assembly in November of 1992. Adapted Soccer would begin the journey for Adapted Athletics in the fall of 1993.
“When I was on the Board, I made presentations on behalf of Adapted Athletics,” Peterson said. “It was a well-accepted concept, but not really understood completely. I kept encouraging the other Board members to keep learning and soon they would embrace it.”
The roots of Adapted Athletics can be traced to Marshall University High School in Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus.
After the Representative Assembly approved the proposal, the Minnesota State High School League became the first state association to sanction Adapted Athletics.
“After the vote for passage, Ed leaned in and told me that we could now both die with smiles on our faces,” Peterson said. “We had done it. We all wanted it so much for these students. We created wonderful opportunities for some incredible students. I believe Ed and Jim lit the torch for Adapted Athletics. I just helped carry it to the finish line.”
That trio’s leadership and service during their educational careers were recognized by the League and professional stakeholders. Peterson and Prohofsky were inducted in the League’s Hall of Fame in 1999 and Christy followed as part of the Class of 2009.
Adapted Athletics is in its 29th year of sanctioning by the League. The state tournaments were not played in 2020 and 2021 because of the global pandemic. Opportunities are available in Soccer, Floor Hockey, Softball and Bowling in the Cognitive Impaired (CI) and Physical Impaired (PI) divisions. Adapted Bowling also offers a division for students on the autism spectrum.
“I’ve been so lucky in my career to work with amazing people, that includes leaders and students,” said Peterson, who retired in 1999.
Peterson also believes she was fortunate in her own personal journey through athletics and education. A native of North Minneapolis, she attended St. Bridget’s and began participating in softball, basketball, tennis and basketball until she graduated from the parochial school in 1961. She then attended Minneapolis Henry and graduated in 1965. The Minneapolis Public Schools at that time offered extra-murals, a program that went a step beyond intramurals. Many schools in the district participated.
In addition to the Girls Athletic Association, she and others competed in the Don Bosco League, which was another path in creating opportunities for others.
“I was blessed to be raised in these two associations, but there was much more ahead for female athletes,” she said. “We were part of something special, especially because Title IX was in the works.”
After graduating from Mankato State in 1969, she began what would be her entire teaching, coaching and leadership career within the Minneapolis Public Schools. She met Prohofsky when both were teaching. Minneapolis South would become involved in the MAAA and trying to recruit other schools to participate as well. Peterson’s heart overflows with joyful memories of teaching, coaching and leading whom she fondly calls “her kids.”
“These kids would go to tournaments on the weekends and return as champions,” she said. “They got noticed. They are rolling around in wheelchairs wearing the same letter jackets as the other kids. These kids are becoming Homecoming King and Queen and are being selected Athena Award winners. The acceptance within the student body was huge. I don’t have to worry about these athletes anymore. They continue to grow and be supported.”
Among other field trips, Peterson took her students to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. She recalls one student that was blind insisting on riding down a hill on a toboggan by himself.
“The joy he had with the wind blowing in his face was priceless,” Peterson said. “I learned more from these kids than they did from me.”
Marshall-University physical education teacher, Ed Prohofsky, also a famed boys basketball coach that would later become the school’s athletic director, was the primary lead advocate for the adoption of Adapted Athletics along with Jim Christy, a 1971 Marshall-University graduate, that would become a Hall of Fame Adapted Athletics instructor and coach at Minneapolis South.
Adapted Floor Hockey was the first sport created for special needs students in Minnesota during the 1974-75 school year. A league was formed that consisted for four teams: two from Marshall-University, a team from the Courage Center called the Minneapolis Independents and another comprised of alumni. Peterson said the league then became secondary students only in 1975 with still four teams: Two from St. Paul, one from Marshall-University and the other, the Minneapolis Independents.
In 1982, the Minneapolis Public Schools closed Central, West and Marshall-University high schools. Peterson said the special needs students were re-enrolled at Minneapolis South.
Six years later, the Minnesota Special Interscholastic Sports Association was formed to organize Adapted Athletics for special needs students. The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association also existed, having been formed in 1978 and incorporated in 1984. Those groups merged, and in 1990, formed two divisions of Adapted Athletics.
Prohofsky, who would become the District Athletic Director for the Minneapolis Public Schools and become known as the “Father of Adapted Athletics” continued to lobby the Minnesota State High School League for the sanctioning of Adapted Athletics. A pivotal part of the advocacy was created when Peterson became the first female to represent Sections 5AA and 6AA on the League’s Board of Directors. Her passion, enthusiasm and day-to-day interaction with students that faced physical and cognitive challenges was fueled by their drive to excel, succeed and be included in the school community of opportunities.
Behind Peterson’s leadership, the Board of Directors approved the sanctioning and sent the proposal to the Representative Assembly for final consideration, passage and enactment. During the discussion, a delegate shared his personal testimony that began with his daughter being in a severe car accident. His daughter had a background as a standout athlete and she had the drive to heal while still answering the call to compete. Adapted Athletics was that avenue for her and others.