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Eli Wolff, leading advocate for athletes with disabilities, dies at 45

Mr. Wolff with his wife, Dr. Cheri Blauwet, and their children, Spencer and Stella, photographed last October.KCK PHOTOGRAPHY

Born with a hole between his heart’s upper chambers, Eli Wolff underwent surgery just before turning 2. When he didn’t immediately awaken the morning of his birthday, doctors realized he had suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed on his left side.

Though he faced teasing, misunderstanding, and exclusion while growing up, he found solace in sports. “Soccer was the place where I could really feel free, a safe place,” Mr. Wolff told the Globe in 2007. “Even at an early age, I was in the zone when I was running. My body would loosen up.”

Beginning by educating middle school classmates, and on into adulthood, he became a widely recognized advocate for opening sports to athletes of all abilities, and he competed internationally in Paralympic soccer. In sports contests, he said in a 2014 TEDx talk, the invisibility and exclusion that many with disabilities face in society can be replaced by an inclusive invisibility.

“You can be a part of the same community as everyone else,” he said. “And that can happen in a way where you’re also invisible. But you’re so invisible because you’re so included.”

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Elias Abarbanel-Wolff, who went by Eli Wolff professionally and lived in Wellesley with his wife and their two children, was 45 when he died April 4 of cardiac arrest.

“He really, really, really loved getting people together around a common cause,” said his wife, Dr. Cheri Blauwet, a physician and retired Paralympic wheelchair racer.

Her husband’s favorite causes, she added, were “anything to do with people’s rights and the social impact part of how sports changes our world.”

In 2001, Mr. Wolff was presented with the Casey Martin Award for the courage he brought to advocacy, and for what his work had accomplished.

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The award is named for Martin, a professional golfer born with a defect in his right leg who successfully sued the PGA Tour, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, for the right to use a golf cart during competitions. Mr. Wolf had organized a coalition of groups to support Martin.

In a statement, Stuart Sharp, US Soccer’s senior director of technical and grass-roots, praised Mr. Wolff’s contributions as a pioneering member of the Men’s CP National Team, which is open to those with cerebral palsy, stroke, or traumatic brain injury.

“Arguably, Eli made his most significant impact off the field, where he, through his tireless global advocacy work, aimed to provide everyone, no matter their background or ability, a place in sport that made them feel empowered and find joy,” Sharp said.

In his TEDx talk at Amherst College, Mr. Wolff recalled that in 2003 “I had the amazing opportunity for the first time to go to the United Nations to work on an international treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities. I was amazed, I was overwhelmed, I was inspired.”

Through his work over the past decades, he sought to inspire others to engage in advocacy as passionately as he did.

His jobs included managing research and advocacy at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, codirecting the Royce Sport and Society Fellowship at Brown University, and most recently serving as a sport management instructor at the University of Connecticut, for which he conducted much of his work from home.

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Mr. Wolff also had been a member of the US Paralympic soccer team for the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games.

“I played forward and striker, and it was among the first times I had been exposed much to others with similar disabilities,” he said in a 2012 interview for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. “It was a powerful experience overall.”

The younger of two brothers, Mr. Wolff was born in Los Angeles on April 22, 1977.

His mother, Janice Abarbanel, is a retired child psychologist who now lives in Cambridge with Mr. Wolff’s stepfather, Neil Porta. His father, Marshall Wolff, is an attorney who lives with Mr. Wolff’s stepmother, Joan, in Washington, D.C., where Mr. Wolff spent much of his childhood.

“He had an amazing life in the 45 years he was with us,” his father said at Mr. Wolff’s memorial service last Monday.

As part of his eulogy, Marshall included anecdotes from the writings of Mr. Wolff’s mother, who said that “our lives today are blessed by the life Eli created. My life has been blessed by being Eli’s mom.”

Mr. Wolff first arrived in Greater Boston as a teenager to attend Milton Academy. He graduated from Brown University, where he studied sociology, and received a master’s in Olympic studies from the German Sport University in Cologne.

He met Cheri Blauwet through professional networks as advocates and athletes.

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“He was the ultimate connector,” she said. “Eli had that connector archetype personality in that he was constantly looking for ways to connect people.”

Friends while they lived on opposite coasts, they began meeting in person when her medical internship and residency brought her to Boston. They married in 2013.

“He was one of the most genuinely kind people that anyone would have the opportunity to know,” she said. “He was always thinking three steps ahead about how to take care of people.”

After their children were born — Stella in 2017 and Spencer in 2019 — Mr. Wolff “was an extremely committed dad,” she said.

“He was well-known in the neighborhood as being that present father,” she said, “which for me, as a working mom, was incredibly valuable and gave me peace of mind, and allowed me to follow my dreams, which I never took for granted.”

In interviews, Mr. Wolff said his advocacy work and the efforts of others gave him hope for the future of disabled athletes.

“I think that young people are more conscious of people with disabilities and what they can do, so that is a good sign for inclusion,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

“When we can break down those stereotypes, we will definitely improve things,” he said. “The Paralympic movement is really accepted by the people who run the Olympics, and the more that is promoted, the more stereotypes will change.”

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In addition to his wife, children, parents, and step-parents, Mr. Wolff leaves his brother, Ben Abarbanel-Wolff of Berlin, and a stepsister, Phoebe Wolff of Oregon.

As part of Mr. Wolff’s efforts with the United Nations, he helped establish the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, which is observed annually on April 6.

He also had been a co-organizer of the annual Athletes and Social Change Forum for the Muhammad Ali Center, including working to prepare this year’s gathering in July.

In his TEDx talk, he recalled taking a course on sports and society as a Brown freshman. The textbook included discussions of racism, sexism, and athletes who were excluded because of their sexual orientation.

“In the class, in the book, there’s not a mention of disability,” Mr. Wolff said.

“I knew that I wanted to try to make a difference,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to fill that book with that chapter on ability.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.