NORWALK, California – Athletes, families, volunteers and tents with local and national sponsors filled the athletics facilities at Cerritos College. After several events, an Los Angeles County Fire Department truck arrived to give some of the younger competitors the opportunity to spray the hose.
The Angel City Games are the largest adaptive sports festival in the western United States. This year’s games, held in late June, offered athletes of all ages and abilities the chance to participate in such sports as blind soccer, sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair football, track and field and more.
“We offer 17 different adaptive and Paralympic sports,” said Clayton Frech, CEO and founder of Angel City Sports. “Some of them are just places to train and learn the sport, but many of them, 10 of them, have a competitive element as well.”
The Angel City Games provide something many people might not know exists: the chance for participation in athletics, regardless of the physical barriers people may face.
“Young kids, especially if they have a disability, they’re not alone,” U.S Paralympian Eric Duda said at the event. “You get a chance to play sports and excel at sports. I love that.”
Duda, who represented the United States in sitting volleyball at the 2004 Athens and 2016 Rio De Janeiro Paralympic Games, was one of many professional athletes to participate in the three-day festival. Duda, along with former U.S. volleyball team member Cassidy Lichtman, was playing sitting volleyball with young children during the “Toddler Games” portion of the event.
“Growing up, I didn’t even know about the paralympic sports,” said Duda, who was born with amniotic band syndrome, although he has been known to tell people that he lost his fingers while protecting his dog from an alligator. “Now that I’m part of it, and have been doing it for most of my life, I want to give the opportunity.”
The Angel City Games have grown substantially since their inception in 2015. Over the years, even through an all-virtual 2020 campaign, the number of sponsorship opportunities and celebrity endorsements has increased.
“That first games, not a lot of sponsors,” Frech said. “We had just enough to cover the costs of smaller events. But we’ve seen growth, and athletes and volunteer support, media coverage, celebrity support. … The whole thing was growing and heading in the right direction.”
The event’s growth is paramount to Frech. The way he and the other organizers see it, growth means more opportunities to make adaptive sports more accessible.
“We’re a part of that growth, we’re a part of that movement,” Frech said. “At the end of the day, if we’re big, what that means is we’re changing a lot more lives.”
Frech credits his son’s perseverance in pursuing an athletic career despite his own physical disability as a big reason for the creation of Angel City Sports.
“There are sort of two inflection points in my life that led us to this moment,” Frech said. “I never imagined a career in sport or disability. The first inflection point is the birth of my eldest son, Ezra.”
Ezra was born as a congenital amputee, meaning one or more of his limbs were not formed correctly before birth. Ezra was born without his left knee and left shin bone and had one finger on his left hand.
Despite this, Ezra is a highly successful athlete, and also plays a major role in the organizational side of Angel City Sports.
“I’m so grateful that my father and the team at Angel City puts together such amazing events,” Ezra said. “Changing lives the way that we do, I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
Ezra is also a paralympian who competed for the United States in track and field disciplines in the most recent Paralympics in Tokyo.
“My dad took me to my first track meet when I was 8 years old,” Ezra said. “I fell in love with the sport then.”
After his own discovery of adaptive sporting opportunities, Clayton took Ezra to his first Paralympic competition in 2013 and was immediately inspired.
“I made it a mission to become as much of an expert in adaptive and Paralympic sports as I can,” Clayton said of his search for opportunities for Ezra. “In 2013 … I took him to his first Paralympic competition. And that’s my spark.
“That’s the second inflection point. I just thought not everybody can take time off of work and spend a couple thousand dollars to travel halfway across the country for sport. … it should be available to everyone in their local community.”
Later that year, Angel City Sports was founded. The first games were held two years later.
“I was inspired by that weekend (in 2013) to bring a similar event to Southern California,” Clayton said.
In the Tokyo Paralympics, Ezra finished in fifth place in the high jump. He has his sights set on the upcoming games in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.
“The goal of Angel City is to educate the general public,” Ezra said. “We want to fill the stands. We want (70,000) to 80,000 people in the audience at the Coliseum, hopefully when I’m competing, all understanding what the Paralympic movement is. All understanding adaptive sports. Understanding disability.”
The announcement of the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics coming to Los Angeles is exciting for Angel City Sports and the entire adaptive sports community. By the time the games arrive, Clayton and Ezra hope to see significant growth in the cultural fabric of the United States.
“With the games coming to L.A., we have the opportunity to truly, forever change the way people with disabilities are looked at in America,” Ezra said.
Added Clayton: “I think our future is bright, partly because the Paralympic Games are coming to Los Angeles in 2028. That is this really amazing, once-in-a-century opportunity for everyone to learn about the Paralympics.”
Angel City Sports will have plenty to do while counting down to LA 2028. Outside of their annual games, they hold many other smaller events.
“We’ll do 100 different sport clinics throughout the year,” Clayton said. “Almost every weekend, people can be out playing sports with us. We have way over 100 pieces of adaptive sports equipment that we can lend to athletes to get them started on their journey.”
Adaptive sports are becoming more accessible, and local groups like Angel City Sports are a big reason for that. As the Paralympics in 2024 near, athletes will look to continue the upward trajectory of adaptive sport.
Duda, Ezra Frech and other athletes found playing sports was possible by watching them. Now more people are watching, and more know what’s possible.