We may never know who the first wheelchair athlete was to pick up a bat and a ball and hit the parking lot. We do know that organized wheelchair softball started in Sioux Falls, S.D., with the very first team the Sioux Wheelers. Good news traveled fast and by the mid-1970s, surrounding cities in the upper Midwest developed their own teams. These included teams in Minnesota (Courage Center Rolling Gophers), in Iowa (the Des Monies Roadrunners), and in Illinois (the University of Illinois).
In 1976, the National Wheelchair Softball Association (NWSA) was formed as the national governing body of the sport. Dave VanBuskirk was the first commissioner of the NWSA. Under NWSA’s direction the league expanded in the late 1970s to include the Quint City Roughriders and a team from Omaha, Neb.
In 1980 three teams were born – the Chicago Pacemakers and the St. Paul Rolling Thunder and Southwest State University. The Pacemakers and Rolling Thunder joined Courage Center’s Rolling Gophers as the three dynasties in the league’s history.
Jon Speake took over as NWSA commissioner in the mid-1980s and held the position for three consecutive seven-year terms, expanding the league even further. He resigned shortly before his untimely death in August 2005.
If there was a new team participating at the NWST back in the 1980s it was most likely from Illinois. The state saw its share of teams. From the University of Illinois, Chicago Pacemakers, Champaign-Urbana, Urbana Black Knights, RIC Rollers, Chicago Sidewinders, Windy City Snakes, to the Chicago Bulls. Other teams joining in were the Great Plains Drifters and the Wisconsin PVA Badgers.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s wheelchair softball expanded its boarders throughout the Midwest with these teams: Wright State University, Columbus Pioneers, Kansas City Slammers and St. Louis Rams. One great highlight of this era was a sponsorship deal fostered by the RIC Rollers and Cubs Care which set precedence for other teams across the country teaming with their local MLB professional franchise.
By the mid-1990s, Baltimore All-Stars, Texas Stars and Colorado Rockies spread NWSAs territory even further. The Courage Center Rolling Gophers split into two teams: the St. Paul Saints and Courage Center Rolling Twins were born.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Texas and Colorado would join Illinois and Minnesota as states with three or more teams. The Texas Stars broke into three teams: Astros Blue, Astros White and Dallas Lighting. Colorado had four established teams with the Colorado Rockies, Blake St. Bombers, Colorado Springs Wildcats (formerly Sky Sox) and Bolder Brewers. Unfortunately, these programs might have grown too quickly, and consequently, the programs have suffered since then.
In 1998 the sport was introduced to New York and from there spread along the coast with the United Spinal Mets, NEPVA Red Sox, Magee Phillies, Brookhaven Ducks, Mauldin Mallers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and United Spinal Yankees.
New team names with familiar faces came into the scene since 2000. The Toledo Silverstreaks/ Columbus Pioneers team formed TC United, which is now the Cleveland Indians. A women’s team – the American Divas – was also formed.
The Nebraska Barons surged to dominance in the new century winning 8 titles in an eleven year span from from 2003-2013. The RIC Cubs and St. Paul Saints each won two titles during that time.
In 2007 a junior division was formed with the first junior wheelchair softball national championship held in St. Paul Minnesota. Teams from Minneapolis, Nebraska, and Chicago attended. The 2014 Junior Wheelchair Softball World Series was held in Chicago with the RIC Junior Cubs (Chicago), LWSRA Junior Hawks (Chicago), Junior Nebraska Barons, and the Bennett Blazers (Baltimore, MD). Both varsity and junior varsity divisions have been formed to accommodate 8 – 18 year old players.
Today, the NWSA continues to grow. After 38 years with the champion determined at the National Wheelchair Softball Tournament, beginning in 2014 NWSA changed the name of its’ championship tournament to the Wheelchair Softball World Series (WSWS) for both the adult and junior annual championship.
Who knows where the sport will show up next year? The NWSA continues to grow and has only mentioned a brief overview of our history and teams. If you have any historical perspectives to add to this article please contact us.