Student-Athletes Team Up to Aid Adaptive Sports via RIISE – Purdue Boilermakers


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – They lived on the same floor in Third Street Suites as freshmen, but it was a shared academic interest as biomedical engineering majors and the Wheel Rise event at Holloway Gymnasium in September 2019 that really brought Purdue student-athletes Léony Boudreau and Kelsey Macaddino together.

Boudreau is a basketball player from Montréal and Macaddino a swimmer from the Detroit area. More importantly, they share a passion for using their field of study to help others, specifically in the realm of adaptive sports. The Paralympic Games are the premier international showcase of the adaptive sports community.

With a goal of Reinventing the Interface for Inclusivity in Sports and Engineering, RIISE was formed at Purdue. RIISE aims to make it more of a norm for adaptive sports to have a presence on campus. The group is also invested in helping to improve accessibility across campus.

Boudreau and Macaddino formed the on-campus organization with the help of swimmer Ryan Lawrence and students Jordan Bridges, Sean English, Noah Smith, Will Kaufman and Adam Kaufman. Boudreau, Macaddino, Lawrence and Smith began meeting regularly in May 2020 to create the structure and constitution of the organization. English took the lead on the group’s podcast. Bridges and the Kaufman Brothers combined their creative minds to shape the brand of RIISE. The group was pleased to have 35-plus students take part in the informational callout held on Zoom at the end of the fall semester.

“Feeling the energy on the Zoom call was invigorating,” Boudreau says. “Ideas were popping around like popcorn.”

The group’s mission statement is to “raise awareness for adaptive sports and empower interdisciplinary students to pursue projects at the interface of inclusivity, sports and engineering.”

RIISE established its executive board, podcast and social media presence in the fall and is now focusing on organizing events. The arrival of spring has opened up more outdoor options and the group has organized the RIISE Wheelchair Challenge on Monday, April 12 at ARMS Kirk Plaza on campus. Participants will have an opportunity to experience navigating a wheelchair around obstacles. There’s also a possibility to win prizes and perhaps even race against Shelby Gruss, the former captain of the Team USA wheelchair basketball team.

Purdue’s annual Engineers Week (E-Week) is set for April 12 to 16. RIISE has organized an April 15 Zoom panel – Paralympians and Professors – to showcase the group’s interests, ideals and goals. They’re also hosting a “virtual hackathon,” which will focus on identifying and solving problems related to disabilities and adaptive sports. The challenge will be held asynchronously following a Zoom Q&A with athletes. Submissions will be judged and winners selected, with the hackathon marketed on Instagram from start to finish.

Wheel Rise in Holloway

It was an event in the home of Purdue volleyball and wrestling that brought RIISE to existence.

Boudreau was inspired to organize Wheel Rise, an adaptive sports awareness and wheelchair basketball showcase, during the fall of her junior year after meeting Gruss. An Ossian, Indiana, native and two-time graduate from the University of Illinois, Gruss is currently pursuing a PhD in agronomy at Purdue. She served as the captain of the Team USA wheelchair basketball team at the 2018 World Championships in Germany. Boudreau says basketball helped serve as an ice-breaker as she first introduced herself to Gruss after they passed each other on campus one day.

“I was doing research in biomechanics and I wanted her suggestions on some projects that I had in mind,” Boudreau says. “It eventually led us to discussing the potential to raise awareness for adaptive sports and start envisioning the inaugural Wheel Rise event. The support from Purdue University, especially the collaboration between Purdue Athletics and the College of Engineering, is what made the event possible.”

Held in Holloway on a Saturday afternoon before a home football game that night, Wheel Rise featured Paralympians from the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball team, including several gold medalists from the 2016 Summer Paralympics. Attendees were treated to a competitive game on the court. Purdue professors Dr. Eric Nauman (mechanical engineering/biomedical engineering) and Dr. Jan-Anders Mansson (materials engineering/chemical engineering) delivered speeches on their research and advocacy for Paralympic sports. Nauman has been an inspiration for Boudreau throughout her time at Purdue. Gruss also continues to serve as a mentor for RIISE, guiding the group’s members on ways to make an impact for the Paralympic movement and pursue meaningful projects.


“It was amazing to have the support of our fellow student-athletes that day. At halftime, some of the student-athletes climbed in the wheelchairs and showed how we were struggling to navigate and finish a layup in the chairs,” Boudreau says. “It demonstrated how difficult the sport is and how really skilled athletes are playing wheelchair basketball. The game was so physical and exciting until the end! Afterwards, I knew our mission needed to keep living and growing way beyond my years at Purdue. With this vision in mind, the next step was to build a strong team, which led me to reach out to Kelsey and connect our initial team. I am very proud and truly grateful for their passion, leadership and dedication. With them the mission of RIISE reached a whole new level.”

Macaddino and Lawrence were among those in attendance that day at Holloway. Both swimmers were inspired to join forces with Boudreau to build upon the event.

“Athletics has been such an influential and transformative aspect of my life,” Macaddino says. “RIISE is about ensuring that every person that has the desire to participate in sport has the opportunity to do so.”

“I actually volunteered for the event on a whim. When the teams from Illinois showed up, I realized how talented they were and how amazing it was to watch them play,” says Lawrence, a mechanical engineering major. “I was talking to a parent of a visiting player from Illinois. I picked his brain for about an hour. It was such a revealing experience to talk to him about his son’s upbringing through the sport compared to so many of the upbringings that we’re familiar with (as student-athletes). It brought to light how different the resources are, how different the opportunities are, how different the recognition is. All those things jumped out at me as things that could be improved upon for the entire adaptive sports community. In that moment, I thought ‘I would love to do something about this, but I don’t really know what to do.’ But when Kelsey told me they were starting an organization, I knew it something I needed to be part of here on campus.”

“As a biomedical engineering student, I have had the opportunity to learn about developing devices that can assist and improve the lives of individuals with disabilities,” Macaddino says. “It is work that can help ensure individuals with disabilities have the quality of life that they deserve, which is very exciting to me. There is a stigma surrounding disability. Most people never consider the challenges of living with a disability because it is not something they ever have to think about. Paralympic sport and achievements are celebrated to a much lesser degree than non-disabled sport. I believe that way of thinking needs to change.”

Wheel Rise in Holloway

Macaddino has also been inspired at the pool by Evan Austin, a two-time Paralympian swimmer for Team USA. Austin, who has spastic paraplegia, has been a presence at Purdue’s home meets since the fall of 2019, the same semester he began training full-time at the Morgan J. Burke Aquatic Center. The 2019 World Para Championships gold medalist in the 50-meter butterfly also serves as a volunteer assistant coach with Purdue women’s swimming.

“Evan brought so much energy from day 1 on the pool deck,” Macaddino says. “This past year he’s gone into more of a coaching role. He’s also training for the Paralympics, so he’s got a lot going on right now but totally takes it in stride and adds so much to our team. Now that I’m done swimming and I’ve been going to the pool to help coach, I’ve had an opportunity to talk to him a lot more. He has a great perspective and is so thankful for the opportunities that he has. It makes me thankful for the opportunities that I have and I enjoy learning about what it’s like to live with his condition.”

English has provided a first-hand perspective as well. A double major in general management and mass communications, he is putting those skills to use and drawing on his experience as an athlete while serving as the host of the RIISE podcast. He interviews athletes and influencers of the Paralympic movement from around the world. English was the recipient of the inaugural Tyler Trent Courage and Resilience Award in 2019, recognizing his relentless spirit after undergoing a below the knee amputation. He was struck by a car while trying to help an accident victim. 

Bridges, a senior studying human resources development, has provided input since the beginning of RIISE. He created the intro/outro music for the RIISE podcast and connected with the Kaufman Brothers as part of the creative team. Will and Adam Kaufman created RIISE’s logos and branding as well as the first promotional video, which helped put the organization on the map.

Smith is currently pursuing his master’s degrees in biomedical engineering at Purdue after earning his bachelor’s in BME in December. Boudreau and Smith teamed up on their senior design project, a wheelchair cushion to prevent pressure ulcers for athletes utilizing a wheelchair in sports. Smith serves on RIISE’s executive board and the organization’s treasurer. He helped prepare RIISE for Purdue Day of Giving (April 28) and is working closely with the group’s development committee on short- and long-term engineering projects.

With Boudreau and Macaddino both serving on the executive board of Purdue’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, they agreed they draw inspiration from Boiler SAAC’s improvements in organization and communication in recent years. They also believe there can also be natural cross-promotion and teamwork between Boiler SAAC and RIISE.

RIISE’s plans for future events include a screening of the documentary Rising Phoenix, which chronicles the history of the Paralympic Games. The group would also like to continue organizing adaptive sporting events. The hope is to turn Wheel Rise into an annual showcase, potentially as a Team USA vs. Team Canada rematch after the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

Along with the University of Illinois, members of RISE have also made contacts with similar interests in adaptive sports at the University of Michigan, Ball State and Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“We are very fortunate to operate at a university that values sports and engineering so much,” Boudreau says. “It gives us the resources and opportunity to pursue tangible engineering projects and host exciting events, while continuing to raise awareness for adaptive sports. It means the world to me to have the opportunity to connect with and learn from so many incredible athletes and contribute to the Paralympic movement with so many amazing people in the organization. It’s been unbelievable to see how many people are excited to contribute to our mission and I am thrilled for what is possible for RIISE at Purdue and beyond.”

If you would like to contribute to the mission of RIISE, donations through Purdue University can be made here:

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