My Alma Mater: Going for the Gold

For this wheelchair athlete, the U of I meant kismet and competition

For this wheelchair athlete, the U of I meant kismet and competition

Susan Hagel portrait and image of her with her wheelchair basketball team

In retirement, Susan Hagel volunteers for the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, Helping Paws Service Dogs and the University of Minnesota Arboretum. (Images courtesy of Courtesy of Susan Hagel and Disability Resources And Educational Services)

It was 1972. I was a senior at a small-town high school in Wisconsin, waiting in my guidance counselor’s office—sitting in my wheelchair. I wanted very much to continue my education, but no colleges in Wisconsin were wheelchair-accessible.

I was ready to give up hope—and then I learned about the University of Illinois.

Sitting in that office, I happened to flip through a college catalog (back in those pre-digital days!), and I read an entry about the U of I—a magical place with an accessible campus, buses with lifts that could take you to class and wheelchair-accessible dorms where disabled students could live independently.

I couldn’t believe it!

There were no options and no opportunities for me in Wisconsin, but in my neighbor to the south, the world was wide open.

Kismet brought me to the U of I. To opportunity. To the Division of Rehabilitation Services [DRES], headed by Timothy J. Nugent, HON ’15.

At DRES, I met other students with disabilities, enjoyed my classes, and developed confidence and independence.

DRES also introduced me to wheelchair sports, which completely changed my life.

During my sophomore year, 1973–74, women’s wheelchair basketball was just starting at Illinois. I joined the team and played in its very first game, against Southern Illinois University. In the years that followed, we won the national championship, and I made many all-tournament teams. I was a member of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team for 25 years; we won our first Paralympic gold medal in 1988, in Seoul.

I also was a Paralympian in archery, my main sport as an individual, and the legendary Jack Whitman was my coach. I was the national champion for nearly 20 years and won Paralympic gold in 1976 and 1984.

Wheelchair sports gave me the opportunity to develop my physical skills, travel the world, meet people from different cultures, and represent both the U of I and my country. The experience not only helped me to grow as a person, but also gave me the confidence to pursue a career.

After completing my B.S. and M.S. degrees at Illinois, I became a therapist at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis. That job made me feel self-assured, and that self-assurance helped me to become a pioneer in promoting the rights and abilities of disabled people. I ultimately spent my entire 41-year career at Courage Kenny.

My education and experiences at the U of I—at DRES and as a wheelchair athlete—shaped me into who I am today. They elevated my self-esteem, gave me the confidence to be an effective therapist and provided me with the skills to help others with disabilities.

Graduating from Illinois is one of my proudest accomplishments. I like to think that kismet led me there, and that the people and the campus kept me there.

I will always be grateful that I picked up that college catalog one fateful day in ’72.

Susan Hagel is retired from her 41-year career as a rehabilitation therapist. She lives in Minneapolis.

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