Lee Montgomery brings inclusive coaching style to adaptive sports

When it comes to immersing himself in adaptive sports and recreation, “coach” Lee Montgomery has one mantra: “How do you play that game? I want to try it.”

And try the 65-year-old Kentwood resident has, for himself and to show others how to do the same.

Montgomery, a double amputee below the knees, has enjoyed the challenge of playing wheelchair softball, tennis, pickleball, hockey, and fencing. He’s medaled in the Paralympics, traveled the world, won a gold medal for wheelchair basketball in 1990 at the Pan American Games, and was ranked 10th in the United States among wheelchair tennis players in 1993.

He started dribbling a ball in 1977 as a member of the Columbus Buckeye Wheelers and later with the Grand Rapids Pacers, where he began a storied 18-year run as a point guard. Throughout those years, the can-do Montgomery found himself in good company with other athletes with disabilities.

“I have had players travel two hours to play on the Grand Rapids adult team, the Pacers Division One basketball team,” says Montgomery, who was inducted into the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Fame in 2015.

Teaching love and respect

He volunteered as the coach for the city of Kentwood Recreation Program’s wheelchair basketball team, a passion he continues in the same capacity with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s team.

Kentwood’s adaptive recreation programs include a range of sports from wakeboarding to rock climbing.

“Adaptive sports grew unto me through the grace of God to share with others to teach them how to love and respect each other,” says Montgomery.

But the point is not to issue a brag sheet, insists Montgomery. It’s to let others with any disabilities give adaptive sports and recreation a try.

Word has gotten out. Kentwood’s adaptive recreation programs draw an average of 250 people from across West Michigan, including Grand Rapids, Fremont, Wyoming, Allegan, and Kalamazoo, says Ann Przybysz, Kentwood Recreation Program coordinator, who’s a certified therapeutic recreation specialist.

“I learned how to play tennis from Lee when he was my group coach at Grand Rapids Jr Wheelchair Sports Camp when I was in middle school. I’ve always admired him through the years,” says Lucia Rios, a disability activist who lives in Holland, Michigan. 

The Kentwood Rec adaptive recreation program has adopted a “come one, come all” approach that does not require participants to be a resident of the city.

Kentwood’s Parks and Recreation Department provides Michigan’s most comprehensive adaptive recreation programming in partnership with community partners, including the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Hope Network, Mary Free Bed, and dozens of volunteers.

Adaptive recreation is for people with a variety of disabilities, explains Przybysz.

‘Come one, come all’

In other words, the Kentwood Rec adaptive recreation program has adopted a “come one, come all” approach that does not require participants to be a resident of the city.

“It’s for individuals of all abilities, using leisure and recreation as a way to improve social, emotional, physical, and mental well-being,” Przybysz says. “It’s adapting different programs to suit the needs of individuals we serve so anyone can be successful to participate.”

Kentwood’s adaptive recreation programs draw an average of 250 people from across West Michigan.

Recreation options include archery, cycling club, boccia league, bowling, canoeing, downhill skiing, golf league, leisure club, kayaking, rock climbing, track and field clinics, pickleball, wakeboarding, and waterskiing, along with dances and other social events.

“We work a lot with the community trying to find locations that meet our needs,” says Przybysz. “Some programs have been going on for a very long time.”

The vestiges of the COVID-19 pandemic have in some ways tempered participation in adaptive recreation, while others have returned to normal.

“We used to have a lot of group homes participate but since COVID, it’s hard for them to come back,” says Przybysz. “That’s one of the biggest changes. But people have come back to normal. Some people still wear their masks, and they’re welcome to. They still have compromised systems. We meet people where they’re at.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.