It was a long journey for most of the 77 athletes from nine different countries competing in the 2013 Boccia Americas Cup last week. They came from as far away as Brazil and Bermuda, but for one athlete, the tournament at New Century Field House was right around the corner.
Elizabeth Flora-Swick, Gardner, said having the boccia Americas Cup so close to home was a wonderful experience.
“It’s been really neat seeing all these people from all over the world come to Gardner, Kan.,” she said.
The tournament at New Century was one of three events this year that will be used to qualify athletes for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Brazil.
Elizabeth qualified to play for Team USA in the Americas Cup last spring at a tournament at Michigan State University. She’s hoping her play last week in Gardner will get her closer to playing in Rio. Although she lost the four matches she played in town, boccia athletes collect points at various events to earn coveted slots on the Paralympic squad.
“Based on how well you do, you get international rating points,” she explained.
Three of her four games were very close. Two were decided by just one point, and a third was decided in overtime.
Individually, Elizabeth, or “Lizzie” as her friends call her, estimates she is ranked at around 50th in the world. Sshe also plays as part of a Team USA three-on-three squad, which was ranked 20th leading up to the America’s Cup.
Her three-on-three squad placed fourth in the local event, but she didn’t play with her squad during the Gardner tournament.
“I was the resident cheerleader,” she said.
The squad won four matches and lost two to place fourth last week.
Boccia is similar to lawn bowling and can be played one-on-one, in pairs and in threesomes. The object of the game is to throw or roll balls as close as possible to the jack, a white target ball. Opponents take turns launching balls onto the court, and a referee determines which ball is closest to the jack ball. The player whose ball is furthest from the target ball continues throwing up to six balls until one lands closer to the target ball. Play continues until all balls are thrown. Points are awarded based on which balls are closest the jack.
It is the sole sport available to athletes with severe physical disabilities.
Paralympic boccia athletes are classified based on their abilities. For example, some athletes don’t have the use of their hands. They use a ramp or chute to shuttle balls to the Boccia court and complete in a different classification than those who are able to use their hands.
Elizabeth’s father, Mark Flora-Swick, helped write the bid that brought the tournament to New Century. He decided to write a bid after attending the 2012 Project Graduation at the field house.
“I had a picture of what this would be like,” Mark said. With the permission of Blaze Sports, the non-profit organization that oversees Paralympic boccia in the United States, Mark and a team of organizers wrote a bid proposal to host the regional competition, Americas Cup, at New Century Field House.
They learned they had won the bid in October of last year.
“Now we had to do it,” Mark said. “We started gathering advocates of disabled sports and we just put our team together.”
With a budget of $175,000, they group used a lot of volunteers and a lot of prayer.
Organizers faced a myriad of challenges. They needed to secure international referees and international classifiers – medical and physical therapy professionals who help determine at which level each athlete will compete. They also needed to find ways to transport nearly 80 athletes with disabilities to Kansas City, find hotel rooms and transportation to and from the boccia tournament.
“Kansas City has a reputation for being not very accessible,” Mark said.
However, a local school bus company was able to transport the athletes. When the hotel organizers originally booked canceled with short notice, they found another hotel.
“The volunteers worked hard,” Mark said.
As Mark and the organizers plotted and planned for the international invasion of athletes, Elizabeth practiced.
One of a set of quadruplets – including Rachel, Rebekah and Hannah – Elizabeth was born with cerebral palsy. When she watched a Boccia tournament about 10 years ago, she became determined to play at a high level.
This fall, she will return to John Brown University to continue her studies in child and family studies.
“I want to work in the adoption field,” she said.