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Vickroy: Oak Lawn Hall of Famer helped level playing field for disabled athletes

EllChafee Oak Lawn recently was inducted inNational Wheelchair Basketball Association's Hall Fame.  |  DonnVickroy/Sun-Times Media

Ella Chafee, of Oak Lawn, recently was inducted into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association's Hall of Fame. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 2, 2014 6:27AM



There isn’t much Ella Chafee can’t do from her wheelchair — flip a toddler onto her lap, handle an epee with precision and grace, make a basket from beyond the three-point line.

But her most impressive skill, many say, is her ability to inspire.

The Oak Lawn grandmother was stricken with polio at age 6. Although the disease left her partially paralyzed, it hasn’t stopped her from doing much, including working in Chicago’s Loop, raising two children and becoming the first disabled woman to make a three-pointer in basketball.

“I’m a sports nut, always have been,” she said.

Her endearing spirit and undying energy have resulted in a long list of athletic awards and accolades, and enough plaques to fill two walls in her ranch home.

She insists, however, that her recent induction into the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Hall of Fame had more to do with her efforts to inspire others to find the joy in sports than her athletic prowess.

“I’ve seen disabled people’s lives turned around by sports,” she said. Not only does athletic competition build confidence and strength, she said, it celebrates ability rather than disability.

Larry Labiak, disability policy officer with the Chicago Park District, has known Ella as a player and friend for more than 30 years. He said that, on the court, Ella was a focused player who emphasized teamwork.

“Off the court, she’s had positive influence on a whole generation of young people with disabilities,” he said. “There are about a half-dozen young women who were directly influenced by her recruiting or coaching who are likely to become future Hall of Famers.”

More important, Labiak said, “She has been a positive role model for the general public.”

Ella was nominated for the Hall by Morgan Park resident Bob Szyman, who coached her for many years. He cited her long list of contributions.

Ella has been selected to compete in eight major international competitions, including three Paralympics. She finished first in swimming and track in the 1964 contest in Tokyo and was tops in women’s foil in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She has set national records in swimming and track and once held two world records in swimming. She has qualified for and competed in 25 consecutive National Wheelchair Games/National Championships — the only known woman to have accomplished this.

Her talent has taken her all over the world. She was a member of the first USA Women’s Paralympic Basketball Team. It won the bronze medal during the 1968 Paralympic Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and competed in the 1972 competition in Heidelberg, Germany, as well as the 1996 Games in Atlanta. She has also competed in contests in England, Italy and Egypt.

Most recently, she captained the 2005 National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Tournament championship team, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Express.

Though rotator cuff issues and creeping arthritis limit her activity these days, in her 46 years of competition, Ella has accumulated more than 100 national and international gold, silver and bronze medals.

Over the years she has co-founded and organized four women’s wheelchair sports teams in the Chicago area: the Windy City Spitfires, Chicago Charmers, Chicago Express and, now, RIC Express. She is the founder and vice president of the Chicagoland Area Women’s Wheelchair Sports Association.

And, as if all of that isn’t enough, she also is believed to be the only fully active wheelchair-confined Girl Scout leader in Illinois, a feat that earned her the Girl Scouts of America “Women of Distinction” award.

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury said: “On behalf of the village of Oak Lawn, I want to congratulate Ella Chafee on this incredible honor. Her story is a true inspiration and this recognition will ensure that she will inspire generations to follow as well. I understand she is one of less than a dozen women to achieve this recognition since 1973. We are extremely proud of Ms. Chafee’s life of service as well as her athletic achievements. She is a true trailblazer and all residents of Oak Lawn should take the time to learn the story of this local hero.”

She grew up Ella Cox in northwest suburban Elgin. She hadn’t even started first grade when she began displaying symptoms of the polio virus in 1951. The family had just returned from a summer trip to Nebraska when she became ill.

“At first, my parents couldn’t believe it was polio because the big epidemic had ended in 1949, although there was another outbreak in ’54,” she said.

She doesn’t remember being particularly upset that the once-highly contagious disease left her partially paralyzed.

“I think because I was so young, my life wasn’t established as a walker. I think it was a lot worse for people who got it in their late teens and early 20s,” she said. “But I do remember getting stared at when I walked with braces and crutches.”

She also enjoyed the popularity her condition brought in high school.

“Everyone volunteered to help me because it meant they got to leave class early,” she said, chuckling.

She chose to attend the University of Illinois because in the 1960s it had one of the most-accessible campuses in the country, she said. It was there that a coach noticed her swimming ability and put her on the university’s swim team.

“I was so excited to be on a team,” she said. “I didn’t even mind the 6 a.m. practices.”

Soon, others began to notice her athletic talent, and she was encouraged to try other sports.

For the lifelong sports fan, the chance to actually play was a blessing.

“There weren’t very many of us disabled women so they encouraged us to try every sport. And I did,” Ella said.

It was in college that she met her husband-to-be. Ian Chafee’s sister, Hope, who also contracted polio and was wheelchair-bound, was her roommate.

After graduation, Ella landed a job with the Social Security Administration. She would head from her home in Chicago to the south suburbs after work each Friday to swim at the Hickory Hills Motel pool and participate in local track and field events with Hope.

She started dating Ian about the time she learned there was a men’s wheelchair basketball program. As she was convincing the men to give track and field a try, they were inspiring her to start a basketball program for women.

The Chafees married in 1971 and settled in the Oak Lawn area. Ella says she could not have amassed the resume she has today without the undying support of Ian and of her children, Ian, Jr., who works for Burbank School District 111 and is a member of the North Palos District 117 board; and Kathleen, a nurse at Palos Community Hospital.

“Our kids really bought into it,” she said. “At one point they both wanted wheelchairs for Christmas so they could play.”

Early on, Ian was recruited to be coach and equipment manager for whatever team Ella was on. Being able to fix and modify wheelchairs enabled him to quit his job in medical equipment billing and open his own business repairing wheelchairs.

Though Ella relished the opportunity to participate in athletic competition, she admits it hasn’t always been easy. With so few teams in the area, the players often had to travel great distances just to compete. Funding was always an issue.

But her determination, and that of her colleagues, has helped transform the world of sports for disabled women.

Today, she said, high school programs are gaining popularity and disabled female players are recruited by many colleges, including the University of Alabama, University of Arizona and, of course, the University of Illinois.

Unfortunately, the surge seems to end right after college. Ella speculates that many women are simply too busy working and raising families to continue playing.

The RIC Sky — the RIC Express was renamed — is the only professional disabled women’s sports team in the city, she said.

“I’d like to see more professional teams,” she said.

Though she still works to promote sports programs for disabled women, Ella said most of her time nowadays is spent doting on her four grandchildren: Katelyn and Grace Chafee, and Faith and Cameron Hummitsch.

In 1996, then-mayor Ernie Kolb declared Aug. 27 to be Ella Chafee Day in Oak Lawn.



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