Stephanie Wheeler, head coach for Team USA’s Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team and the University of Illinois Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, has high expectations of her teams.
“If you set the bar high, you will reach it,” she says.
She knows their capabilities, because not so long ago she was one of them. Playing at the University of Illinois while training with Team USA, competing in back to back Paralympic Games, winning two gold medals, and dreaming of coming back to her alma mater to teach others the game she’s loved since childhood.
Stephanie started playing wheelchair basketball at age twelve. Six years earlier she was injured in a car accident that left her paralyzed.
An active youth, Stephanie wanted to stay involved in sports, so she found her local adaptive sports club. They offered one sport: wheelchair basketball.
“At the time that was really the only sport I knew I could play,” says Stephanie. Luckily she fell in love with the sport. “I’m from North Carolina. Basketball is in our blood.”
A few years later she attended a sports camp at the University of Illinois. It was her first introduction to the larger world adaptive sports could open up for her.
“I grew up in a town of 1,000. So to see that this is something I could actually do if I worked hard and got good grades. When I saw that, it excited me,” says Stephanie.
With this goal in mind, Stephanie worked on her game, and her academics, and found herself back at the University of Illinois as a student-athlete where she would end up winning three national championships. Many of her teammates were also members of Team USA, and they thought Stephanie had what it took to join them.
“Tryouts were open at that point, and my coach and teammates encouraged me to apply.”
She didn’t initially make the team, but in 2001 she was named to the development team and she would go on to compete in two Paralympic Games, Athens and Beijing, where she would take home back to back gold medals.
“I was really fortunate to be on some great teams and lucky enough to go to two games,” says Stephanie. “Winning was pretty incredible. That group of twelve was the best in the world at what we did.”
In 2010, when Stephanie retired as a player, she wanted to stay involved in the sport and, fortunately, the head coaching job at her alma mater opened up at the right time.
Stephanie just completed her sixth year as the head coach. Her program’s success led to her being named as Team USA’s coach, which trains at The Lakeshore Foundation, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. This spring, she watched as the first group of seniors she helped recruit accepted their college diplomas.
“You get to watch them grow over the course of five years and be a part of it. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Stephanie takes this responsibility seriously, because she understands the benefits that adaptive sports have had in her life, and how these experiences will stick with her players long after their last college game.USA
“It is ten times as important for an athlete with disabilities to participate,” she says. “They get the opportunity to socialize. They learn self-discipline and work ethic. The health benefits are just as much, if not more important, than for able-bodied athletes.”
She encourages anyone who knows an adaptive athlete to get them involved in a sport.
“Try something,” she says. “Get your loved one involved. Encourage them and support them in the best way you know how, but set the bar and have expectations. They are capable of doing anything.”
Extra-curricular Opportunities for High School Students
Do you share Stephanie’s passion for promoting adaptive sports opportunities? Disabled Sports USA is working with more than twelve community-based organizations to promote access to extracurricular sports opportunities through the Athletics for All Taskforce. Providing the tools and guidelines by which coaches, athletic directors, and school administrators can include students with physical disabilities in interscholastic sports, the task force now has materials on seven sports, including wheelchair basketball.
For more information, visit www.athleticsforall.net.