Paralong Drive fills a much needed void left after Paralympic rejection

Even though Golf makes its return at the 2016 Rio Olympics after a 112-year absence, it’s extremely disappointing the greatest athletes in Disabled Golf are essentially excluded from Paralympic competition and participating sponsors until 2024 at the earliest.

A conversation with my friend, Thomas Slagle, about the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship triggered my “aha” moment of launching the Amputee Long Drive Championship. The following is a short history of Amputee Long Drive Championship and ParaLong Drive competitions that have been held.

The first eight athletes to register for the Amputee Long Drive Championship at the very beautiful Tennessee National in Loudon, Tennessee in July of 2013 were all leg amputees, which was an incomplete picture of the talent in amputee golf. I began searching the internet for something special that would attract “arm hitters,” and was immediately blown away by an invention created by then 17-year old inventor, Easton LaChappelle. The teen genius’ 3D Printed, Brain-Powered Prosthetic Arm was presented at the White House, and I believed that he could help me recruit arm amputee hitters.

Around the same time, I learned of Alan Gentry and Brad Clayton. Both are arm amputees, and they solidified a strong field for our first event, which featured performances far beyond what I thought possible. Distances ranged from 268 yards to Jared Brentz’ 367 yard blast at 2013’s Amputee Long Drive Championship. I also should mention that Easton exhibited his revolutionary prosthetic at this, and all in attendance were inspired and excitedly amazed by Easton.

So many of our athletes had mistakenly believed that their days as a competitive athlete were finished, but clearly we were wrong. Non-amputee athletes wanted to participate in our next event at the Mesquite NV Sports & Event Complex in October of 2013. We used the term ParaLong Drive to reflect the added new disability types and divisions. Jared Brentz notched his second win at the ParaLong Drive exhibition with a drive of 358 yards.

The ParaLong Drive Nationals in May of 2014 was memorable because many athletes recorded their personal best drives. Jared Brentz and Brendon Jacks both broke the 400-yard barrier while involved in an epic three set showdown to decide the winner. Brentz came from behind to record a 409-yard drive, which edged Jacks’ 401-yard bomb. Other division records that still stand are Chris Osborne’s 332-yard drive in the above-knee amputee division, and Jesse Florkowski’s 333-yard drive in the one-armed division.

Preparing for the ParaLong Drive Worlds in October of 2014, I began to realize that our sport could restore the pure joy of competition. One of the greatest experiences in my life was watching an athlete at the Mesquite NV Sports & Event Complex accept his World Championship plaque and reach toward the heavens with both hands. All of us there were united as friends in this competition. We all understood this athlete’s training and sacrifice earned that championship, and we were so proud of what he accomplished. I still get chills each time I think of the exuberant joy expressed in that moment by the newly crowned champion. It was very exciting to have the Golf Channel covering our event, and Jared Brentz was matched against Tim Herrmann in the match play final. Brentz edged out Herrmann 340 yards – 333 yards to earn his 3rd win.

ParaLong Drive returned to Tennessee National in July of 2015, and we were extremely excited about the tremendous media coverage from Knoxville news stations WATE, WBIR, and WVLT, along with a ‘live remote’ from the Knoxville News Sentinel Sports Page and athlete video interviews from The Golf Director out of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Jared Brentz won The ParaLong Drive Cup with a drive of 365 yards.

During Golf Channel’s Long Drive Month in October of 2015, we had our next event at Orange County National in Winter Garden, Florida. Several Veterans associated with the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Stand Up and Play Foundation competed in The ParaLong Drive Cup. Some of the highlights were Paralyzed champion Anthony Netto reaching 305-yards, and one-armed stars Ryan Van Portfleet and Reinard Schuhknecht both going over 325 yards. Jared Brentz again posted the longest drives of the day, with the best being 367 yards.

The future of ParaLong Drive hinges on reaching more athletes through adaptive athletic programs. Approximately 25 universities have some form of adaptive athletic program, with wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis being among the most popular sports. College campuses have an abundance of talent that is not being tapped into, and two of our hitters come to mind. Recent MTSU grad Jared Brentz and UTC Senior Tyler Bunn are great examples. Neither star athlete represented their university in any sport, because opportunities did not exist. Like Jared and Tyler, the vast majority of challenged athletes in college have no athletic alternatives to compete in sports.

Specifically, the University of Alabama has a very successful adaptive athletics program that launched golf as a ‘trial sport’ in 2013, and recently announced a $10 Million budget for adaptive athletic facilities. The beauty of ParaLong Drive is that it does not require significant financial resources, which makes it an ideal sport for schools that want to offer an adaptive sport for their physically challenged student population. ParaLong Drive is ideal because many programs have existing practice facilities, or partnerships with golf courses that have ranges that could easily serve as a long drive grid. ParaLong Drive solves accessibility issues because it does not utilize the golf course, and it is ideally inclusive. Many physically or cognitively challenged competitors have competed in our events. Adaptive athletic programs at the university level should consider adding ParaLong Drive.

As a life-long University of Tennessee fan, I’m excited about our next event being held at the Mack and Jonnie Day Golf Facility on July 11th. Its one of the most beautiful golf practice facilities in the country, and I can’t wait to watch our athletes hitting beside the Tennessee River.

In conclusion, the rehabilitative benefits of competition can enhance the quality and duration of lives, which is even more important than 400 yard drives. Several athletes have lost significant amounts of weight, and added muscle by training for ParaLong Drive. The athlete’s thirst for competition has also produced non-visible health benefits like reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. The community that ParaLong Drive has created also helps bring about friendly rivalries, and I know so many times being differently abled limits the social aspect of life. Through ParaLong Drive, we have made life long friends from competing in this sport. It matters that we stand together cheering each other on from the sidelines, because we know that we are not sidelined or handicapped. Popular sports like baseball, football, and basketball offer little opportunity for our athletes to play competitively, but the athletic background to excel in those and other sports often transfers well to ParaLong Drive. Further, hitters will never “age out” of this sport, and being able to compete at all levels is what matters most.

I would like to make special mention of the following individuals-
Easton LaChappelle, the now 20-year old CEO of Unlimited Tomorrow is working on an invention that will enable our paralyzed athletes and other mobility challenged individuals to walk, I can visualize paralyzed champion Anthony Netto walking to the tee box and bombing a 350-yard drive wearing a suit made by the young inventor some day. No matter how far a ParaLong Drive athlete drives the ball, Easton will always be the “star of stars” because of his enormous ability to help so many people.

Parker Owen is a brilliant young inventor that created a “Cycle Leg” out of bicycle parts. He exhibited his prosthetic invention at The ParaLong Drive Cup held at Tennessee National in 2015. The young Alabama entrepreneur is also the founder and CEO of Frapz Advertising, a company already valued at over $10 Million.

Brendon Jacks was the 1st ParaLong Drive athlete to top the 400 – yard mark at the 2014 ParaLong Drive Nationals, and has been an outstanding ambassador for our sport as well a respected mentor in encouraging and helping other athletes. He is the consummate professional that always does a great job whether on the tee box or as a speaker.

Brad Clayton, PGA Master Teaching Professional and PGA of America Deacon Palmer Award recipient has excelled in several different roles – competitor, teacher, trick shot exhibitions, consultant, and announcer. He is a credit to the golf profession, and its understandable why so many Wounded Veterans travel to his North Carolina golf facility for instruction and camaraderie.
Dr. Lucian Newman III is a very accomplished surgeon, as well as a Champion Amputee Golfer and ParaLong Driver. Many times he has gone above and beyond traveling to Tennessee and Nevada for events despite the important demands of his medical practice.

Alan Gentry is a top one-armed Golfer and ParaLong Drive hitter, and has been instrumental in recruiting the top one-armed athletes in the world to our events.

His longest drive in competition has been 310-yards at the ParaLong Drive Nationals in Mesquite, Nevada.
Anthony Netto is the 1st paralyzed hitter to eclipse the 300 – yard barrier in competition, and on the Golf Channel’s Morning Drive segment. He is not only an incredible athlete; he played a large role in creating the Paramobile that has enabled many paralyzed athletes to participate in a multitude of activities.

Dave Sawtell may be the hardest working and most dedicated athlete in ParaLong Drive. The Australian superstar trains year-round, and makes the long journey to Nevada and Tennessee to demonstrate his talent of launching drives well over 200 yards from a wheelchair.

Reinard Schuhknecht is a South African resident whose potential as a Long Driver is unlimited. His size and strength makes it seem effortless to drive golf balls over 300 yards, and he is also one of the top one-armed golfers in the world as well.

Tommy Morrissey is an amazing young athlete whose talent is known around the world. Under Armour recently invited him to celebrate their 20th anniversary with the likes of Tom Brady, Cal Ripken, Roger Clemens, Lindsey Vonn, and Jordan Spieth. Many of my peers are hopeful that we will one day watch him compete in the Paralympics, but first Golf has to become an approved Paralympic sport.

I regret not being able to include all the great athletes and inventors of ParaLong Drive, but these are a few examples of why the sport belongs in adaptive athletic programs at universities.

My favorite part of ParaLong Drive has been getting to know the athletes and inventors, and watching them continue pushing the boundaries of human performance on the long drive grid and with prosthetics.

by Dean Jarvis