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Wheelchair basketball coach Stephanie Wheeler on her sport and being gay

Wheeler is a two-time Paralympic gold medalist in basketball and is the head coach of the Univ. of Illinois women's wheelchair basketball team. She will coach the Paralympic team in Rio.

Stephanie Wheeler celebrates winning the Gold medal Wheelchair Basketball match between the United States and Germany at the 2008 Paralympic Games.
Stephanie Wheeler celebrates winning the Gold medal Wheelchair Basketball match between the United States and Germany at the 2008 Paralympic Games.
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

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 slwheele@illinois.edu

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