Editor's note: Wheeler's column appears here thanks to GO! Athletes' Winning Wednesdays. GO! Athletes is the nation's leading LGBT athlete network.
By Stephanie Wheeler
I am a teacher. I am a friend. I am a granddaughter. I am a listener. I am a fierce competitor. I am a niece. I am a champion. I am a hard worker. I am a leader. I am a lifelong student. I am evolving. I am a Paralympian. I am demanding. I am grounded in and driven by my beliefs and values. I am a partner.
I am a coach. This is who I am.
I am disabled. I am gay. This is also who I am.
I am living my truths on my own terms. Sometimes it scares me. Mostly, it empowers me. I grew up in a space where being different wasn't cool. I wanted to get through each day without being seen or being noticed. I was the kid in the wheelchair in my school and in my southern community of about 1,000 people, and that made me very different. I felt defined by my disability and by the accident that caused it and that took my mother's life when I was 6 years old. I was never bullied outright and I had plenty of friends, but I never felt completely included.
Now on the basketball court, well that's where I could be seen; be noticed without the glare of the status quo or the "normal" dictating my actions. I found wheelchair basketball when I was 12 years old. Actually, it found me. I'm not sure how many people can say that one of the greatest days of their lives happened in a doctor's office, but I can! Someone involved with a local wheelchair basketball team saw me in a doctor's office and asked if I was interested in playing. It's where my life started.
Before my accident, I had played T-ball and gymnastics, yet after my accident, I was put on the sidelines. I longed for the physicality of sports and was thrilled at the opportunity to be on a team again, even though I had never played basketball before. With the support of my family, I went to my first practice that next weekend; I think it's safe to say that I haven't gone a day without basketball as a huge part of my life.
I took to the sport quickly and earned an opportunity to play at the University of Illinois while receiving a great education. This is where I found my true self. I became outgoing, an avid learner, and a part of an incredible community (both academically and athletically). I wasn't the kid in the wheelchair anymore. I was the collegiate athlete (and I had the letterman's jacket to prove it)! I didn't want to hide my disability anymore, but now there was a different battle brewing inside.
As my basketball skills grew, I was fortunate enough to be named to our USA Women's wheelchair basketball team for the first time in 2001 and remain on the team until I retired from competing in 2010. It was quite the run for us, as we won 2 Paralympic gold medals, the first in Athens in 2004 and the second in Beijing in 2008. We also won 2 World Championship silver medals and 1 gold medal.
My disability became a non-factor in my life. I have been successful because of it, not despite it. Sport equalized the playing field. However, I still didn't feel completely whole. I had been dating guys all of my life, without question. That was just how things were supposed to be. But not for me. I began dating women in 2008 and finally felt what I had been missing. I resisted. It wasn't right. I wanted to turn back into my 15 year old self; wanting to go through a day without being noticed, but this time because of my sexuality.
Over time, I became tired of hiding and decided it was time to come out. I first told some of my closest friends, who were also teammates. They have been nothing but supportive and gave me the courage to be my true self. I didn't feel the need to hide, or come out anymore. I was just me. If people knew, they knew, and that was just fine with me. It's definitely not easy.
I know there are those in my life who aren't completely supportive. I still struggle to be myself all the time, but then I remember that now in my coaching career, I have a team of young ladies that watch how I live my life. I want them to be empowered, confident and self-directing young women. If I don't carry myself in that manner, I can't ask them to do the same.
The fact that I am disabled and I am gay doesn't mean my medals shine any less or are worth any less. It just means that my path is slightly different, but no less worthy. I have a beautiful partner, an amazing family, a growing career, and enough once in a lifetime moments to fill many lifetimes. I am defined by my actions, my beliefs and my values; not by a wheelchair or my sexual orientation.
I am empowered. I am confident. I am self-directing.
This is my truth. No one else gets to define this for me.
You can reach Stephanie Wheeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org