Another Winter Paralympic Games are upon us. At this time, I always reflect back on the amazing experiences that I have been fortunate to have in my athletic career as a participant in two Paralympic Games in 2004 and 2008, experiences that now I can't wait to have again as a coach of our 2016 USA Women's Paralympic Basketball Team.
Sitting on the podium, my heart was pounding. The kind of pounding that reverberates throughout your entire body. With each beat, my mind wandered back to the lonely afternoons in my backyard where my only companions were my basketball and my dreams.
I grew up in basketball-crazy North Carolina and I wasn't different from anyone else in my home state. I fell in love with everything about the game: the athleticism, the intelligence and competitiveness required to be successful, the beauty of it when a perfect play is executed. However, as a child with a disability, I didn't have anywhere to play the game that I so deeply loved.
At the age of 12, I was introduced to wheelchair basketball and we became best friends. If you were to visit my hometown in North Carolina, my neighbors would tell you how annoying the sound of a dribbling basketball can be. To me, it was the most beautiful sound in the world. The same aspects that caused me to fall in love with watching the running game were the same aspects that drove me to pour my heart and soul into wheelchair basketball.
Along with my passion for basketball, I was also developing a passion for the Olympics. My Nana tells a story about watching the 1984 Olympics diving competition with me (I was 3 years old at the time). She says that as I watched the divers complete their dives, I would say "I do that!". I don't know if that meant I wanted to dive in the Olympics, but I think it's the earliest manifestation of my competitive spirit. When the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta in 1996, I remember wanting so badly to go watch and be a part of something that amazing. I envied those athletes. Not only were they representing themselves on the biggest stage in the world, but they were representing their country.
As I watched those Olympic Games in Atlanta, I knew I would make it there someday. For the first time, this year I'll be able to watch 50 hours of the Paralympic Games on NBC.
At the time of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, I was also becoming aware of the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics, which are for athletes with physical disabilities, take place two weeks after the completion of the Olympic Games in the same city in which the Olympics were held and are the second largest sporting event in the world. The athletes competing in the Paralympics use the same venues to compete, live in the same athletes village, and experience the same feelings of pride, exhilaration and disappointment as their Olympic counterparts. Athletes compete for medals in 20 different sports that vary from those that we see in the Olympic Games, like track and field or swimming, to those that are unique to the Paralympics, like wheelchair rugby or goalball. The Winter Paralympics feature five sports: Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
Watching wheelchair basketball at the Paralympic level provides a lesson in what true athleticism means. Muscles flex as athletes battle to gain defensive position over their opponent. The screech of metal-on-metal is the soundtrack to the campaign for a gold medal. The smell of burning rubber from the quick stopping-and-starting greets fans as they enter the arena. Chairs tangle, players fall to the ground and pop right back up in their chairs, and hard fouls are given to take away easy baskets. I'm pretty sure that at any point in time during my career, I was a giant rolling bruise from some of the falls and hits that I took (and dished out, of course).
If there was ever any misconception that wheelchair basketball isn't a physical game, watching it at the Paralympic level will quickly show you that it's incredibly physical.
In 2004, I was selected to my first Paralympic Team and competed in my first Paralympic Games. At this point in my life, I had dedicated the previous five years to making it to my first games. I was up at 5:45am each day to train with my team at the University of Illinois, had individual strength and conditioning three to four times a week, attended weekend training camps with the USA team, and on top of that, was working on my undergraduate degree in kinesiology.
Competing at the highest level and being successful at that highest level drove each decision I made. Some see that as making sacrifices. I saw that as making the choice to be excellent. I think what is so great about team sports is that you know your teammates are making those same choices. In the end, our dedication to excellence paid off. We won the first Paralympic gold medal for the USA Women's team since the 1988 Seoul Paralympics. While the joy and pride of winning one gold medal was incredible, it lit a fire in my teammates and I to do it again. Four years later at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, we repeated as Paralympic champions.
After the buzzer sounded, the court was quickly flooded with my teammates and coaches. We hugged, cheered, yelled, and soaked in all that this moment more than 8 years in the making was giving us. As I sat on the podium, hearing OUR national anthem played for OUR team, my heart pounded and tears quickly filled my eyes. Racing through my mind were memories of the little girl with big dreams practicing for hours in her backyard; filling my heart was gratitude for the support of my friends and family, and pride in my teammates, coaches, and country. The dreams that carried a young athlete from her backyard in small town North Carolina to the Paralympics were now realized.
Starting on March 7, about 550 athletes representing 45 countries will take center stage in Sochi, Russia. Some dreams of Paralympic medals will be realized, while for others, success will be found in competing. However, for all athletes competing, it will be a time in their lives that they will cherish forever.
Stephanie Wheeler is the head coach for the University of Illinois and USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball Teams. You can follow her on Twitter @StephWheeler10. Wheeler is a member of the LGBT Sports Coalition.
Women's Wheelchair Basketball final (5) - Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games (via Paralympic Games)