Wheelchair basketball is more than a sport

Article: Autumn McDowell – Sports Editor

For some, it can pose as an ultimate equalizer, for others, it provides the freedom to compete and gain self-confidence, but wheelchair basketball could be most known for its ability to continuously push an athletes limits.

Since the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed in 1994, it has thrived on athletes inclusively. Although often misunderstood as a sport which is purely for people with disabilities, wheelchair basketball is able to blend competition for all athletes, be they disabled or able-bodied.

For Steve Sampson, assistant coach of the U23 National team, wheelchair basketball was the same sport that he had loved during his university career and throughout his entire life, but with new challenges.
After seeing his first live game in Beijing during the 2008 Paralympics, Sampson was instantly hooked.

“When I returned to Canada, I met up with a local club and started playing with them,” he said. “Overcoming those challenges is something I really enjoyed – actually, I continue to enjoy. Controlling and moving the chair efficiently is the obvious challenge, but also, some of the tactics and approach are different then the able bodied game. I loved the new challenges of the sport, and wanted to work myself up to a similarly high level that I was at in the able-bodied game.”

For anyone that participates in the game, Sampson admits that wheelchair basketball can have a powerful impact on both the physical and mental state of the athlete.

“In our sport in particular, one thing I find almost amusing, is when some of these kids – who can have some pretty sever physical disabilities – get into their sport chair,” Sampson said. “Once in the sports chair, the kids turn into incredibly graceful and efficient, almost balletic, basketball athletes. This grace and efficiency, leads to what I think the greatest benefit of sport, which to my way of thinking is the self-confidence that is instilled in the participants.”

“Confidence in their own physical and mental abilities. Confidence that the rest of the team is there for them. Confidence that the preparation and practice will serve them well. Confidence that they are good at their sport, and odds are they will defeat you.”

For Regina native and avid wheelchair basketball athlete Nikola Goncin, he knows first hand the dramatic effect the game can have on its athletes.

Since trying the game during a demonstration in gym class back in 2008, after recently having his leg amputated, Goncin found himself instantly passionate about the game, which allowed him to have a competitive outlet once again.

“I could write a book on the opportunities and impact wheelchair basketball has had on my life,” said Goncin, who competed as a member of Sampson’s U23 squad. “It has opened so many doors in my life, giving me the chance to do things I never even dreamt of.”

One door that the sport opened for both Sampson and Goncin was the chance to travel to Turkey from Sep. 7-14 and compete in the 2013 World Junior Championships. Although the team may not have come back with a gold medal around their neck, the experience they had competing overseas was unforgettable.

“Turkey was a fantastic experience for us on and off the court,” Sampson said. “Our athletes gave a tremendous effort. They gained some incredible experience, which will serve them well in future years as they hopefully continue to work, and one day earning a spot on the senior team/Paralympic team.”

Although this wasn’t his first time competition on such a large stage, Goncin could not have asked for a better experience.

“My experience in Turkey was fantastic,” said Goncin, who made his debut with Team Canada in 2009. “I have been to a World Championship before and I feel this one was much better organized and the complex we played in was spectacular. We have had very little junior development in Canada for the past couple years but I can confidently say that the future looks bright.

“My teammates were great. Even though we didn’t achieve the desired result, the team grew an enormous amount through the course of the competition. With a few more friendly bounces, we easily could have been playing for a medal. Turkey was beautiful, the people were friendly and it definitely sits among one of the best tournaments I have ever attended.”

While its international presence continues to grow, Goncin believes that locally, the sport could always use more exposure.

“The presence of wheelchair basketball in Regina is underwhelming,” Goncin said, who was a student at the University of Regina before transferring to the University of Illinois. “The city is not huge in size but there are many athletes that do play the game. It seems as though tons of people have heard about it but never really had a chance to try it out or watch it live. It’s not just an issue in Regina but Canada wide. In my opinion it should be much more accessible for everyone to experience.”

Whether someone is able to experience the sport for themselves, or watch from the sidelines, Sampson recommends that everyone should make an effort to become more involved with wheelchair basketball.

“Within Canada, our sport allows for both able-bodied and disabled players to play together,” Sampson said. “Odds are there is a club near you. Seek them out and give it a try.”

As for Goncin, his ability to persevere through any challenge that comes his way is evident, and his desire for strong competition does not appear to be going away any time soon.

“The athletes I play with and against go to war when on the court and do not expect any less from their competition,” Goncin said. “I would have never experienced sport to this extent had I not lost my leg years ago. I live for competition and excitement and wheelchair basketball has all of those qualities and more.”

And while his athletic career will surely continue to flourish, Goncin has just one message, which he would like people to know about the sport and people with disabilities in general.

“You are truly only as limited as you make yourself, wheelchair bound or not.”