50 Years of Steelwheeler History
by John Sikora
The Pittsbugh Steelwheelers organization began in the mid 1970's when four men decided to turn a dream into a reality. The interest of forming a wheelchair basketball team in the Pittsburgh area was an idea shared concurrently amongst several individuals. Vietnam veterans at the Disabled American Veterans (Cliff Stricker, Dan Barry, Mike Walsh) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (Joe Kiren, Vic McCoy) were plotting thoughts of a competitive sports team for disabled servicemen. In the meantime, interest was stirring at the university of Pittsburgh where public meetings were held to solicit interest form the disabled student population to organize a wheelchair sports team. The PVA members and Sikora connected with another private citizen (Bob Mellinger) and met at his residence to further the concept. Barry and Walsh meanwhile were attending the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) whereby a young, inspiring instructor/coach by the name of Bill Shay offered his hand and knowledge. With the combined financial and administrative support of the PVA, DAV, and CCAC, the Steelwheelers were offered a physical site for practice and purchase of practice uniforms. Through the tutorial leadership of Shay, twice weekly practices soon began at CCAC. During a break in the action of one of those practices a discussion broke out regarding the need to formally compose the organization thus leading to a decision on the Steelwheelers name. (Bill Domboski)
Barry, Walsh, Shay and Sikora assumed organizational responsibility, and by working together over the next year, they created a business plan and by-laws. In 1977 the group was officially registered as the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, Inc., whereby it became a non-profit organization that provided wheelchair sports in the Pittsburgh and Western PA areas. The team has been comprised of male and female athletes in age from 8 to 71. The organization has consisted of a variety of sports programs of which basketball, track/road racing, and rugby have been the most prominent. Soon after induction, the Steelwheelers adopted organizational objectives to:
* develop a program of physical activity to benefit the physically disabled
* improve leisure, recreational and sporting skills for the disabled
* educate the public about acceptance and employment of the disabled
* educate and encourage disabled individuals to achieve maximum use of their abilities
* expand the concept of total rehabilitation of the disabled by providing incentives through involvement and competition in wheelchair sports
* gain acknowledgement and respect from the community as being wheelchair athletes.
Our goal has always been to have all our members develop a sense of well-being that comes from being physically active and involved in the community.
While a tremendous amount of focus was given to athletics, the group never lost sight of the value of friendship and family. Social gatherings included summer picnics (Garrett's), socials (Conn's), and annual banquets (Pilot House and Sheraton). Fundraising was a constant necessity and included fashion shows with the Pirates and Steelers wives, Steeler smokers, Monte Carlo nights, raffles, road races, corporate/business sponsorships and school benefits. The team received additional support through the formation of our own cheerleading squad. the girls provided entertainment and choreographed encouragement at all home games and select road trips.
The Steelwheelers first official wheelchair basketball game was held on April 5, 1976 at the Pennsylvania (Hiram G. Andrews) Rehabilitation Center in Johnstown, PA Our five players and coach traveled in one van for the much anticipated action. The Steelwheelers tradition got off to a positive start with a 40-28 victory over the opposing Rollers. The Steelwheelers joined the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in 1978 and became members of the Elite Lake Erie Conference along with teams from Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Toronto. Our initiation to the league came at the hands of some very talented teams including the defending national champion Detroit Sparks. In one game, the Sparks provided a 120-19 defeat and left the team humbled, amazed, and hungry to learn. The team ended their inaugural season with a 4-20 record. Through the years of competition in the Lake Erie conference, the team received great education on the intricacies of the game as Detroit was the NWBA national champions six of our first seven years in the league while Toledo and Toronto were annually ranked in the top ten.
Seeking a more level playing field of competition, the Steelwheelers moved alignment to the newly formed Bluegrass Conference in 1985. Trips to Tennessee and Kentucky became standard weekend excursions. Our new conference competitors included University of Kentucky, Marysville, Knoxville, and Nashville. The team continued to improve in talent and ability and won the Bluegrass Conference Championship 4 consecutive years.
While newfound success was enjoyable, the team hoped for an opportunity to compete closer to home. Through the guidance of Barry Miller, a new conference was in the works. Miller led the inclusion and development of teams from Johnstown, Edinboro, and Elizabethtown and soon after created the Keystone Conference in 1988. The Steelwheelers continue competing today in the Keystone Conference now with teams from Rochester, NY; Buffalo, NY; Youngstown, OH; Edinboro University; Johnstown, PA; St. Mary's, PA; and Erie, PA. Our dreams and efforts have productively spread to other local teams whereby sports programs are more widespread and enjoyed by many more people.
Some of the basketball highlights have also included
* Lynyrd Skynyrd tour bus trips to Lexington
* Big Mac tour bus trips to Columbus, Ohio
* NWBA playoffs
* Achievement of # 12 National ranking
* Child birthing returning from West Virginia road game
* John Danse, player intern from Holland
The Steelwheelers focus in the early years was primarily on basketball while a few hoopsters also competed in track and field. By the late 70's and early 80's, most members competed in both athletic arenas. The team produced many outstanding track/swimming athletes while competing in the National Wheelchair Athletic Association (now Wheelchair Sports/USA). Together the teams compiled a string of seven Ohio Regional Games team championships. Thirteen athletes went on to become national champions. Our athletes also represented us well at home and abroad as eight individuals have been selected to compete for our country on a USA international teams at the Paralympics, Pan AM, and Stokes-Mandeville Games.
The Steelwheelers continued to expand the opportunities for competition throughout the 1980's and 90's whereby athletes were involved in sports including rugby, tennis, racquetball, and archery. The quad rugby team, formed in 1992, has competed regionally and nationally with opportunity to gain national ranking in 2002.
The Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, Inc. now celebrates over 40 years of existence, of memories to last a lifetime and of soul sharing experiences. The organization has seen members achieve many milestones in life, much beyond the world of sports. We have witnessed achievements of certifications and degrees in education, and of gainful employment. We have also shared marriages and births, and mourned deaths of teammates. The past is a rich history of dreams dreamt and dreams fulfilled and the future is in the hands of today's active athletes.