Prevention & Recovery

Wheelchair basketball: One woman's story

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

Wheelchair basketball: One woman's story

Originally titled "Hoop Dreams," from the September 2007 issue of Canadian Living Magazine, on newsstands or click here to purchase online.

As the game began, I could practically taste the adrenaline. The smell of burning rubber filled the stadium, and the sound of colliding metal was almost deafening. The coach called my name, and I hurried down the bench, raring to go. I was fouled on my first play and sat ready to take the foul shot, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the thousands of fans and dozens of media cameras snapping pictures.

This was my first game as a Paralympian during the 2004 Games in Athens. I was momentarily frozen with fear. I soon regained my focus, and from then on, it was just about playing basketball.

Love for the game
I fell in love with stand-up basketball the first time I played it. I was 10 years old and living in Edmonton. My older brother Jamie was outside shooting hoops and I asked him if he would teach me how to do a layup. He took out the sidewalk chalk and traced it around my feet and put a big X on the backboard where I was supposed to aim the ball to get it to fall into the basket. I tried for a while, but I must have been pretty horrible because, even with his enormous patience, he gave up and left.

But I kept practising. At one point my mom asked Jamie where I was and he said, “I don't know. I left her outside five hours ago.” At the time, I was already athletic. I enjoyed soccer, sailing, and track and field. But on that afternoon, basketball stole my heart.

Pleasure and pain
As a teen I spent an exhausting but exhilarating several years playing on high school and provincial teams. My coach in college, Gerry Cousins, was all about passion and drive, and I learned a lot from him about remembering why I play: for the creativity, for the teammates and especially for the passion.

However, with this passion came pain. Beginning at about age seven, I had problems with my knees; they seemed to always be weak and sore. I was also showing signs of muscle imbalance. I spent thousands of hours with different physiotherapists and doctors around Edmonton, but my pain was always written off; an athletic girl like me was bound to have problems.

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The diagnosis
I even started playing some wheelchair basketball to give my knees a rest. Yet it was becoming increasingly obvious that something was wrong. One day after a wheelchair basketball game in college, an occupational therapist in the stands approached me and asked what my disability was. I told her that I just had bad knees. She seemed surprised and asked if I had ever seen a neurologist. I hadn't, so I made an appointment with a specialist right away.

It took the neurologist no time at all to diagnose me with muscular dystrophy (MD), a neuromuscular disease that causes muscles in the body to become very weak and eventually to break down. After years of trying to figure out what was going on in my body, it finally had a name.

But it meant the end of stand-up basketball for me. When I was told I would no longer be able to play, I was devastated. It was the end of an era, and I was only 25.

Rediscovering a first love
A new era soon began, though. With my diagnosis I was invited to try out for the national wheelchair basketball team. It was my second chance. Wheelchair basketball has essentially the same rules as the original game; the difference is the way athletes move, which has generated changes in strategy, physicality and skills. The game is fast paced and very physical. First-time spectators are left wide-eyed at the sight of athletes falling out of their chairs and getting back up. It takes a tremendous amount of upper-body strength and strategy, and an even greater level of teamwork and creativity.

While wheelchair basketball follows the rules of basketball, it also has some of the positioning of rugby, many of the strategies of hockey and the mobility dynamics of polo (instead of being on a horse, you're riding your wheelchair.)

Strength and determination
With intense training and determination, I made the Canadian national wheelchair basketball team. And then came the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Being on a team representing Canada at the Paralympics was one of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences of my career so far. I'll never forget the feeling of pride and joy as our team wheeled into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. There was nothing anyone could have said to prepare me for that moment, sharing the spotlight with people from so many different countries, with such varied life experiences and with so many types of disabilities. It was truly thrilling. The only disappointment was that, despite our high hopes of bringing home gold, we came away with the bronze medal.

Three years later I began playing in a men's league, and I was the first woman to play on the American men's all-star team. Last year I was named most valuable player after our national women's team won gold at the world championships in Amsterdam. I was the leading scorer and rebounder, but I can't take all the credit; my success was due in large part to my teammates. In a sport like basketball, everyone contributes to the game's outcome.

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Physical and mental training
I'm currently training 30 hours a week for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. As part of the training sessions, I play on women's and coed teams in Edmonton and the United States.

My training involves more than just basketball; I cross-train by kayaking, “handcycling” and cross-country skiing. I'd certainly injure myself if I played a full 30 hours of basketball every week! My training also involves mental preparedness and taking care of my body, so I try to maintain a healthy diet. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoy all the training, although there are some days when it's hard to push my body one more time out the door. It helps that I love working with my trainers and teammates; after a while we become a lot like family.

Off the court
Outside the court, I'm working toward my master's degree at the University of Alberta. I'm studying social policy and the phenomenon of able-bodied participation in wheelchair basketball. (Did you know that many able-bodied athletes actually choose to play wheelchair basketball? It gives them a chance to challenge themselves in different ways.) I'm particularly interested in how this represents reverse integration, which I see as a useful and understudied social tool to help increase participation of various minority groups in society.

I'm also an advocate, not just for disability rights but for all rights, including those of women, gays, lesbians and transgendered people.

Formidable achievements
Last year I was named national ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy Canada and was given the Edmonton Pride Award for outstanding contribution to the community.

Since being diagnosed with MD, I have given speeches at schools, universities and workplaces. It has offered me the opportunity to teach people that my story is no more inspirational than theirs. I stress that everyone faces his or her own struggles, and that, in some ways, we're all very much the same. It's all about challenging yourself and learning to love that challenge. Failure and loss are inevitable parts of everyone's life. It's how you see it and what you do with it that makes the biggest difference.

My body feels good these days, but I know that I'm getting progressively weaker. I recognize that MD will eventually force me to stop playing basketball altogether and embrace other passions; maybe on the sidelines as a coach. I know the day I leave will be an emotional one, but I don't fear it. What I have learned from wheelchair basketball will stay with me forever. I look forward to tackling my next opportunities and struggles with the same passion as I have for basketball.

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Playing by the rules
Wheelchair basketball is one of Canada's most successful sports. Both the men's and women's national teams won the 2006 Gold Cup World Championships in Amsterdam, and both remain the top-ranked teams heading to the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

The most notable difference between wheelchair basketball and traditional basketball is just that: the wheelchair. The basics of traditional basketball are adapted to fit the dynamics of playing in a chair.

Basics of the game:
• Five players from each team are on the court at a time.
• The game consists of four quarters, with a break between the second and third quarters.
• As with the stand-up game, players must dribble the ball when moving; wheelchair players who take more than two pushes of the wheel without dribbling get a foul.
• Players can't be in the key (the area closest to the basket) for longer than three seconds.
• A team has 24 seconds to take a shot before the other team is given possession of the ball.
• A basket scores one to three points depending on where the ball is shot from.
• Players can't touch the surface of the court with their feet at all during play.

In Canada able-bodied players are allowed to play in wheelchair basketball leagues, but only disabled athletes can play at the Paralympic and world competition level. At this level, players are given a ranking that represents their level of mobility on the court. Each team uses a combination of rankings that can't exceed a certain number.

Wheelchair basketball is gaining a following at the international level. The CBC covered the Visa Paralympic Cup during its Saturday afternoon sports broadcasts in 2005 and 2006, and media coverage and awareness of wheelchair basketball is sure to grow.

-- Lyndsie Bourgon

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Prevention & Recovery

Wheelchair basketball: One woman's story