Back in Action

The Adaptive Athletics program is building new roots with help from donors and the university.

Brenna O’Connor on indoor track photo by Penn State Athletics


Late in 2022, Brenna O’Connor saw a story about Penn State’s Ability Athletics program, which had been largely inactive for more than two years following the retirement of longtime coach Teri Jordan and the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks later, she saw a posting for a part-time position coaching senior thrower RJ Shirey, Penn State’s lone remaining ability athlete, for his final season.

After helping Shirey ’23 IST to national titles in javelin and shot put last summer, O’Connor ’91 H&HD (pictured) took over as the full-time coach of what is now Adaptive Athletics last November. She and a group of alumni athletes and stakeholders are hoping to restore the program’s status as one of the best in the nation.

Last year, the program returned to the oversight of Intercollegiate Athletics after being directed by Student Affairs. And O’Connor works with athletics administrators as well as members of Rise Above, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an advisory board that includes alumni Paralympians Maggie Redden ’07 Com, Rohan Murphy ’06 H&HD, Kortney Clemons ’08 H&HD, Jake Schrom ’11 Agr, and Jeff Hantz ’04 Eng. “Our position is to help Penn State recruit, raise funds, and generally serve as a think tank in collaboration with [intercollegiate athletics],” says Rise Above founder and chairman Chuck Sypula.

O’Connor, a thrower on the track and field teams coached by Jordan in the early 1990s, wants Adaptive Athletics to be a home for athletes competing for championships, but also for both disabled and able-bodied members of the student body and community to compete recreationally in sports like wheelchair basketball and sled hockey. When she and Shirey were in Alabama for nationals last summer, the response from grade-school athletes seeing Penn State represented was excitement. “We’re back, basically, is what I was telling them,” she says. “We’re working on things, but we’re back.”