Taking One for the Team
Alumna’s pioneering spirit earns her entry into two Halls of Fame.
Ella Chafee was maneuvering around an opposing player on the congested basketball court when her foot suddenly became entangled in the wheels of an opponent, and it was twisted at an unnatural angle. The next thing she recalled: intense pain.
When she let out a scream, her coach called a timeout, and after she wheeled off the court, she told him her foot might be broken. The coach asked if she could go back in the game if they put ice on it, and Chafee agreed. So the coach reached for the handiest item at a wheelchair basketball game—duct tape—and she played the rest of the game with a bag of ice taped to her foot.
Chafee took one for the team, which has been the story of her athletic career as a pioneer in women’s wheelchair sports. By putting her sport, her team, and other women ahead of herself, she blazed the way for women in wheelchair sports. In addition to competing in some of the earliest Paralympics, this LAS alumna and Oak Lawn resident helped to create the women’s division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, earning her a recent induction into the Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame. Chafee is one of the few women to be inducted into two Halls, for she is also a member of the Hall of Fame for Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports USA.
In basketball, she reached the Hall primarily on the basis of leadership rather than dominant abilities, says Bob Szyman, a U of I alumnus who coached her and spoke at her induction into the Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame.
“You can search all kinds of data tables, and you won’t find her statistics that stand out in basketball,” Szyman says. “Her legacy is how she promoted the sport to other women and helped them achieve high standards of performance.”
Chafee contracted polio in 1951 when she was six years old and the country was in the grip of a terrifying epidemic. Polio left her without the use of the lower part of her body. In the 1950s, there were not many opportunities for girls and women in organized sports, let alone those with disabilities, but her parents encouraged her to take swimming lessons.
“At that time, wheelchairs were big clunky things,” Chafee says. “It wasn’t until I got down to the U of I in 1963 that I discovered much to my surprise that there were sports for those with disabilities. I had never heard of it before.”
The U of I was known nationally as a pioneer in accessibility and wheelchair sports, and when Ella connected with the campus Rehabilitation Center, the physical therapist Chuck Elmer encouraged her to swim competitively. Track soon followed.
In the early 1960s, women in wheelchair track could only race in the 50-yard dash because the thinking back then was that “the poor dears would just crumble away and faint if they had to race any farther,” says Ian Chafee, Ella’s husband of over 40 years. “The women obviously were ticked off about that, and they kept agitating for longer distances.”
When longer distances were offered, Ella leaped at the chance. In fact, she says she signed up for every possible wheelchair sport, just to prove there was interest. Her roommate at Illinois, Hope Chafee (who would later become her sister-in-law), was also in a wheelchair because of polio; together, Ella and Hope tried to do it all.
“Every time a new event opened up for women, we would do it, whether we liked it or not,” Hope says.
Today, wheelchair athletes are highly specialized, Ian says, but back then, athletes like Ella and Hope did swimming, track, basketball, archery, fencing, shot put, discus, and javelin, to name just a few. Ella also recruited as many other women as possible into wheelchair sports.
“She was always a bit of a missionary about athletics,” says her husband Ian. “She was big on getting other people involved early since she had lost 10 years of competition because she didn’t know about wheelchair sports.”
In Tokyo in 1964, Ella and Hope both medaled at the second Paralympics, with Ella coming home with a silver and bronze in swimming. Ella was also part of the gold-medal 4 x 100-meter relay in the 1968 Paralympics in Tel Aviv, and after a long gap she came back to the Paralympics in 1996 in fencing.
Ella graduated from U of I with her bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1967 and began working for the Social Security Administration in Chicago. Meanwhile, she and Hope continued to swim at a motel pool close to the Chafee house, and Ella says she would spend the weekends with Hope’s family.
That’s when she started noticing Hope’s older brother, Ian.
“I didn’t really notice Ella at first,” Ian says. “She was just my sister’s little friend.” And “little” is right because Ella is only five feet, two inches tall. But things started to change in their relationship when Ian drove Hope and Ella to Champaign for a wedding.
“She tormented me the whole way down to Champaign, hitting me in the back of the neck,” Ian says. “She’s lucky I didn’t drive off the road.”
Hope says she encouraged their relationship and even tried to help it along by leaving the two alone whenever Ella visited their family. Ella and Ian married in 1971, and Ian—who is not in a wheelchair—suddenly found himself drawn into the world of wheelchair sports.
When he innocently told Bruce Karr, a leader in wheelchair basketball and U of I alumnus, to get in touch if he ever needed help, Karr pounced on those words, and Ian soon found himself as equipment manager and mechanic for the Chicago Sidewinders, a men’s basketball team. Ian became known for his wheelchair innovations, such as an axle relocator, which shifted the axle beneath the seat, giving athletes a more powerful stroke on the wheels.
“Wheelchair basketball has a lot of crashing and banging,” says Ian, who went on to found his own wheelchair service company. “Wheels get damaged, hand-rims broken, spokes torn out.” He became the wheelchair equivalent of a pit-stop specialist in auto racing and could change a tire in the span of a basketball time out.
In the 1970s, Ella and Ian had two children, but even with the demands of motherhood she wanted to keep competing. There was no wheelchair basketball for women in the Chicago area, so Ella and Hope filled the gap by founding the Chicago Charmers. One year later, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) became the sponsor, and the team changed its name to the RIC Express. Finally, when they drew the support of the WNBA team, the Chicago Sky, they underwent one more name change and became the RIC Chicago Sky.
Throughout her basketball career, Ella played point guard as a Class 1 player. At that time, there were three classes, with Class 1 being players with the greatest disability, and Class 3 being players with the least disability. The total points of the five players on the floor could not exceed 12. In other words, a team could play with three Class 3 players, one Class 2 player, and one Class 1 player for a total of 12.
Although not a major scorer, Ella is believed to have been the first woman to sink a three-point shot in a national wheelchair tournament. This milestone came against a powerhouse college team from the U of I, and the Illinois coach was furious that Ella was fouled on the shot, setting up a four-point play, Szyman says.
Ella was also highly maneuverable and could cause grief when she defended younger, stronger athletes. Most notably, there was a game when the 40-something Ella kept using her wheelchair to legally block another team’s top player, taking her completely out of the game. Finally, in frustration, the younger player shouted, “Get this old lady off of me!”
“My wife considered that a compliment,” Ian says.
He also says that Ella “is probably one of the most optimistic and cheerful people I know. She’s one of those people who wakes up in the morning, throws open the window, and says ‘Good morning, world!’”
This infectious spirit is what helped her draw so many top women players into the game, he says. She continued to play well into her 50s, and her leadership was so valued that she was named captain of the 2005 RIC Express team that won the national championship, even though she wasn’t a starter.
Of all of the sports in which she competed, Ella came to love wheelchair basketball the best because she thrived on team chemistry. “When you win together, you win together. And when you lose together, you lose together,” she says. “It’s that team thing. I love it.”
By Doug Peterson