With the hiring of its first head coach, Eastern Washington University is closer to developing a sanctioned intercollegiate wheelchair basketball program.
In fall 2017, EWU launched a wheelchair basketball club team and began competing in various tournaments around the Northwest. A year later, the university received a $50,000 grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation to help establish a para-athletics program.
Momentum for the sport picked up from there, as EWU fundraising efforts produced $250,000 in support over five years from Premera Blue Cross and Alliant Insurance Services. In addition to providing program support, these generous combined gifts have allowed Eastern to hire a wheelchair basketball head coach, David Evjen, from Willmar, Minnesota.
Evjen, who leaves a position as the Spanish Cultural Liaison at Willmar High School, about two hours west of Minneapolis, was born in Bogotá, Colombia and adopted to the U.S. as baby. He grew up in Minnesota and excelled at high school football, basketball, track and baseball. But Evjen’s life changed in May 2012 when a herniated lower back disc caused permanent nerve damage in his left leg. Five months later he was playing wheelchair basketball and he hasn’t looked back.
“I wanted to take on the challenge of starting an intercollegiate wheelchair basketball team at EWU because in the short time that I have been involved in the sport, it has presented me with many opportunities that I never would have thought were possible otherwise.”
Housed in athletics with support from the College of Health Science and Public Health (CHSPH), EWU Para Sport, as it will be known, will be a sanctioned team in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Intercollegiate Division.
“Athletics is an effective way to support physical and emotional health,” says Donna Mann, associate dean of CHSPH. “This is also a way to educate the community about the social inequities that exist for people with spinal cord injury and other disabilities.”
Evjen, who played wheelchair basketball for five years at Southwest Minnesota State University and two years for the Colombian National Team, plans to have the EWU team ready for the 2020-21 NWBA season.
“I have developed a passion for the sport and want to help promote it for as long as I can,” says Evjen. He officially began his duties at Eastern on Dec. 2.
Even as the sanctioned team embarks on this new challenge, Eastern will maintain a wheelchair basketball club team that will compete around the region.