When UCF alumnus Chris Seilkop, ’92, was named to his first Paralympics roster in 1996, his family was ecstatic.
As Seilkop gears up for his fourth Paralympic Games in Rio de Janerio this month – securing his place in history as Team USA’s first four-time, men’s sitting volleyball Paralympian – their enthusiasm has noticeably dropped off.
“I think they’re all kind of used to it, this being my fourth time. ‘Oh you’re going again, huh?’” he joked with a hearty laugh.
But he’s thrilled, coming back after eight years of retirement.
“I really have an internal desire to be the best I can be in whatever I do. It’s just a drive,” he said. “I can play sitting volleyball for many years and I know I can still get better. I want to get better. The game is fun again.”
Seilkop, a native Floridian, became an amputee at age 7 after an accident with a lawn mower that severely damaged his right leg below the knee. The youngest of five, Seilkop was not exempt from sibling competition.
“It was natural to get out there and play with them,” he said. “They would tackle me and knock me down just like they would anyone else.”
Seilkop’s older sister Sharon attended UCF, and the university appealed to him because of its proximity to his hometown. He needed to stay relatively close to his prosthetist in DeLand.
UCF was good to him. He met his future wife, Rhonda, during the spring break of his junior year. He also found his calling in a sport that would eventually take him around the world.
Although he identified as more of a basketball player, he competed in volleyball games organized by his fraternity, as well as intramurals.
“My knowledge or growth or love for the game really started at UCF,” he said.
While pursuing his degree in political science, he searched for a standing basketball program for disabled individuals, but found none. Wheelchair basketball didn’t appeal to him. Then, his friend showed him a magazine article about amputees playing volleyball.
“I wanted to compare my athletic ability as an amputee to other amputees. I never saw another amputee younger than 60 my entire life growing up in DeLand because they’re all retired,” Seilkop said.
Seilkop got in touch with the team he read about in the magazine , and the coach told Seilkop that he could try out if he traveled to their upcoming tournament in Atlanta. Seilkop did, jumping into the hitting line during warmups.
“I didn’t know until afterwards, when I talked to the setter, that he didn’t even know I was disabled because I had sweatpants on,” he recalled.
Seilkop traveled with the team’s B squad to Richmond, Virginia, for its next tournament. When the B team beat the A team, Seilkop found himself starting at middle blocker at the next tournament, which happened to be the U.S. Open.
“I couldn’t even really tell you how to rotate on the court or where the zones were to serve,” he said. “There I was starting at the U.S. Open and I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
A year later he started for Team USA at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. The team came in fourth place, his closest shot so far at medaling.
Time and time again, what he enjoys most about the international competition is his interaction with the other athletes. His most memorable experience occurred with the Cambodian men’s sitting volleyball team at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
The Cambodians, many of them land mine victims, still sported wooden legs similar to what Seilkop wore in the 1980s. He said the athletes were fascinated by Team USA’s graphite, space-age artificial limbs and asked to hold the legs to get a closer look while in the Olympic village.
When they matched up during pool play, an undefeated and heavily favored Team USA easily advanced to the next round. There was a mix-up with post-match transportation, and the two teams ended up on the same bus. When Team USA boarded, the Cambodians started singing to them in their native language.
The Americans, not quite sure what to do, decided to reciprocate the gesture and sang the only song they could think of at the time: 99 Bottles of Beer. They stopped at number 95, and the Cambodians cheered.
“These guys were just so happy to be part of the games,” he said. “That’s something I’ll always carry with me – just that spirit.”
Seilkop, who now lives in Texas, would love to bring back a gold medal to his local YMCA, where he serves as CEO. He began his career with the organization at the Winter Park location in 1989, working in the fitness room and after school care program. When he graduated, he accepted a job as the fitness director in DeLand and eventually worked his way up over the next two decades landing in Victoria, Texas.
“I enjoyed the kids and the mission of the Y, what they do in the community and how they change lives and help people. All that seemed to fall into place for me. It wasn’t a job to me, it was something I enjoyed doing,” he said. “There are no normal days at the YMCA, and that’s what I love about it.”
He also does his fair share of representing the Black and Gold in a state that features two of UCF’s conference foes (Houston and SMU). He is just as happy to represent his country and Knight Nation once again at the Paralympics.
“I’m not at the same level of Phil Dalhausser. Trust me, don’t confuse me with him. He’s a lot better than I am,” said Seilkop, referring to fellow alumnus, three-time Olympian and the 2008 gold medalist beach volleyballer. “But I’m very, very proud to be a Knight.”
The Opening Ceremony is scheduled for Sept. 7 and the first day of competition for sitting volleyball is Sept. 9. The medal matches will be held Sept. 18.