Words and photos by Craig Schreiner
On March 9-11, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will host the 2017 national intercollegiate wheelchair basketball championships. The Warhawk men and women hail from all over the world and are among the best athletes in the sport. On this page, we'll be sharing thier stories, with new ones added as the tournament approaches.
Mariska Beijer's preferred colors are orange and purple. Orange is the national color of her home country, the Netherlands. Purple is the color of her adopted home at UW-Whitewater. The colors also are associated with royalty, and that befits Beijer, too. She is one of the elite women's wheelchair basketball players in the world.
When Beijer broke her leg as a toddler, too much tightening on a traction device resulted in the "death" and amputation of her right foot. She calls that "disability one." And "disability two" happened 14 years ago in a skiing accident where she twisted her knee and ankle and also did some nerve damage.
"My body believes that my knee and ankle are still twisted, so my ankle is always swollen. I always have nerve pain.
"When I was about 11 years old, I still remember the time when I first stepped into the gym, and they were practicing (wheelchair basketball) and I was so amazed by the speed and agility, the teamwork... the clashing, too. It had everything I wanted. I tried it out and I just fell in love.
"When I was younger, I had a burnout because I was like, ‘I don't want to be disabled. That's it.' And then I met basketball, and all the stuff I can do, and I was like ‘Hey! I can still do so much and get stronger, get faster and improve.'
"I've played for 14 years. I sound old now (laughs). But that's ok. I like it.
"When I came here (to UW-Whitewater), I just fell in love. The Netherlands is smaller than Wisconsin. I am a small-town girl. Everything is in walking distance (she walks with a prosthesis and just bought a kick scooter). The team is really like a family. We are like one big rowdy family. It was really a nice warm nest to fall into.
"From 2009 until now I have made every major competition with the (Netherlands) adult team, so I went to four European (championships), two Worlds, and two Paralympics (bronze medalist).
"I live life. I travel the world. I love it. I meet awesome friends because I am disabled. I am fine with it."
A senior, Beijer plans to finish her marketing degree, return to the Netherlands to find a job and play in a professional league in Germany.
David Fleming was having a hard time deciding between his two top goals — Army Ranger or firefighter. He joined the local fire department in Texas at age 16 as a junior volunteer and pre-enlisted in the Army at age 17. If he could have done both jobs, he probably would have.
But in 2003, when the driver of a pickup truck ran a stop sign just as Fleming was crossing the intersection on his motorcycle, his life changed. As a result of the accident, he became an incomplete paraplegic, with limited movement and sensation in his lower body, and a double amputee, losing both legs.
Fleming had never played basketball. He describes his first experience with wheelchair basketball at a recreational facility in Pasadena, Texas, in 2010 as "terrible." But something made it stick.
"Meeting guys that are going through the same situation and similar disabilities that I was dealing with made it interesting to go back because you could actually talk to them and relate to them. I would go back just to have someone I could relate to and learn things from as far as dealing with life situations."
Fleming began to compete at a larger facility in Houston and happened to attend a talk there that included UW-Whitewater head men's wheelchair basketball coach and Paralympian Jeremy Lade and a couple of players.
"I kept going (playing) and before I knew it I was coming up to Whitewater and playing with some of the best guys in the country. And they were a whole lot better (than me). But it kind of gave me some drive and motivation to keep working at it and keep trying to make myself better. It's brought me to where I am today."
Fleming enrolled at UW-Whitewater in 2011 and graduated with a degree in business management and a minor in occupational health and safety. He is now on track to graduate with honors in May with a master's degree in business administration. This is his final year of eligibility for college wheelchair basketball and he will exit after playing in the national championship tournament on his home court.
As much as the wins mean to Fleming, his experience has been more about the moments. One of the moments was an overnight bus ride from Whitewater to a tournament in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
"It was probably one, two o'clock in the morning, pitch black and I felt like everyone on the bus was sleeping, but I was awake because I couldn't fall asleep. And I'm looking around the bus and it's like, man this feels like a movie — where teams are traveling across the country to play some sport and then they go back to work or go back to school, and that's what it felt like.
"I'm like, ‘I'm in my own movie right now.' I'll never forget that feeling."
The outreach activities the team does for elementary, middle schools, high schools, colleges and other groups give Fleming an opportunity to educate people who may not know how to act or talk to someone with a disability.
"It is ok to help somebody (with a disability), but instead of just running up and assuming they can't do something, ask them first, ‘Can I help you?' or ‘Do you need any help?' because people with disabilities can pretty much do most things on their own. If there's three feet of snow outside, maybe they might need a little help getting through it. But for the most part we're pretty independent.
"A lot of people don't know how to react because they see the chair before they see the person. Once they get to know people who have a disability, they tend to lose sight of the chair and they see just a person at that point."
For a type-A guy like Fleming, wheelchair basketball helps sharpen his competitive edge. Fleming has power, strength and agility. He can hold the ball high in the air at the end of his long arm on the tips of his fingers, balance on one wheel, aim for the basket and push the ball away. When his chair goes over, his tough frame pops him back up. And on defense, he'll make you pay before you get to the basket.
"A lot of people think wheelchair basketball is just people pushing wheelchairs around, but then they come out and it's like ‘Oh my God that's crazy!' It's a combination of crash car derby and high speed racing at the same time, with basketball mixed in it."
Fleming credits Coach Lade with creating a positive, challenging environment for people.
"Everyone has potential that they don't know they have. One of the things I heard when I first met Opie, he's always said ‘Those who believe they can't and those who believe they can are both right.'
Fleming looks at the Huffman, Texas, firehouse tattoo on his arm that helped him focus on getting better when he was fighting his way back from his accident. He doesn't know what might be next, but the fire service still calls to him. While he may not be climbing any physical ladders, the figurative ones won't keep him away.
Someday they may call him "Chief."
Yarden Hershko was injured about six months after joining the military in her home country, Israel. She discovered wheelchair basketball at age 20.
“When I got injured, I used to have this big clumsy day chair which barely moved. And then when they put me on the wood floor with a ball chair, it moved so fast. I felt the most able-bodied I had ever felt since my injury. And for me that meant a lot because going from being a combat fighter to being a paralyzed person and always in hospital – that was a rough toll on my soul.
“Wheelchair basketball is played by people with diverse disabilities. You even have able-bodied people today in college wheelchair basketball. Not everybody is equal in their disability so what they came up with to make the game fair is everyone gets a classification. I am a 2.0. The classification goes from a 1.0 to a 4.5. A 4.5 would be an able body or a person with a lot of body function. A 1.0 would be a person with not a lot of body function. On the court in a game, you can’t play over 14 (total) points. So if we want Mars (Mariska Beijer) who is a 4 to play; or Laura (Vacek) who is a 4.5 or if we want them to play at the same time, we need to calculate who can play with them. And so it’s a lot about lineup and who you put with whom. On our team we only have two 2.0s which means only Liz can be my sub or vice versa.
“You can see sometimes the level of classification by how a player sits (in the chair). For example, for me, with my level of classification, I sit pretty low. A 4.5 will sit at the top of the height which is possible. They want to be as tall as possible, use all their body strength, use all their core. Each chair is designed for a specific athlete.
“I always kept looking for (ways of) doing it better or learning from somebody. That’s why I came to Whitewater because this program, around the world, is very famous.
“Wheelchair basketball gave me freedom. It was a big sunlight at a time of darkness in my life.”
When you watch the give-and-take, the back-and-forth, and the good-natured teasing, you might think they are sister and brother. She is older by about a year and, like a big sister, she is the more serious one. He is just as intense, especially on the basketball court, but he likes to have fun, and he can make her laugh.
UW-Whitewater students Laura Vacek and Drew Selz traveled almost identical roads to wheelchair basketball. As young children living in the same community, they were diagnosed with a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the bone or in soft tissue. They were aware of one another since about age seven, but did not hang out or really talk until they were students at Waterford Union High School. Together for an interview, they recount their cancer stories:
Laura: “We had the same doctor, Dr. King, and we had the same cancer, which is Ewing’s sarcoma. Same surgery. We were basically diagnosed at the same time, same exact type.”
Drew: “She has a fake femur or metal rod. I call it an implant. She has her knee. I don’t have my knee.” Laura: “I have nerve damage. You don’t have nerve damage.”
Drew: “Yeah, and we both have total hip replacements too. So same cancer, just… mine’s probably a little bit more. She got lucky, I didn’t. But she got nerve damage, I didn’t. So we’re kinda equal.” They both laugh.
“My mom never told me I had cancer,” said Drew. “She always told me I had a tumor. She didn’t really like the negative connotations that go along with cancer. My mom, she always had a strong faith. I was going through chemo and, like, I kind of knew what was going on. I was fortunate to never really get too sick.”
Diagnosed at age 7, Laura had a similar experience, not really comprehending the potential gravity of the situation. But unlike Drew, the treatment hit her hard. “I really did get sick from the chemo,” she said. “I was always nauseous. I had allergic reactions to the medicines. I had mouth sores. Like, everything and anything, basically. “But you know, I didn’t really think of myself any different when I was younger,” she said. “It was more in, like, high school when you’re walking around people with a limp and you have scars and you have to have surgeries rather than vacations. “But then starting wheelchair basketball and seeing other people that have worse situations than you, I mean, you just look at yourself lucky,” she said. “That totally changed my confidence level after I started wheelchair basketball.”
Both players discovered the sport in high school. Laura tried it at a camp for cancer survivors. Drew gave it a reluctant try as a result of a conversation between his mother and Laura’s mother. “She (Laura) started wheelchair basketball before I did,” said Drew. “I didn’t want to do it and her mom ran into my mom grocery shopping and my mom kind of dragged me. And we just kind of bonded over that.”
Laura and Drew each attended summer wheelchair basketball camps at UW-Whitewater. Laura was recruited by Dan Price, then head coach of the women’s team. Drew was recruited by Jeremy “Opie” Lade, head coach of the men’s team. Christina Schwab has taken over for Price this year. Schwab and Lade both played on USA teams in the Paralympics. Schwab was a member of the gold medal team in the Rio Paralympics last year; Lade was a bronze medalist in the London Paralympics in 2012.
Drew: “We practice every morning for two hours. We scrimmage every day in the afternoon for two hours and we have to lift at least twice a week. And we have to at least scrimmage three times a week. But a lot of us try to lift more than just twice with more than three (scrimmages) because the thing Opie always says is ‘Bare-to-minimum requirements equal bare-to-minimum results.’ None of us are about getting the bare minimum.”
In the mix of players’ abilities on the court, Laura and Drew have higher ability classifications. They can use their lower bodies to steer their ball chairs, freeing their hands for ball handling and shooting.
Laura: “Drew and I have the ability where we turn our hips one way, our chair’s gonna move without us even touching our wheels. So they (ball chairs) are amazing, depending on what your disability is. Like if you’re paralyzed from the waist down, a lot of people can’t move their hips that way because they can’t feel them. Some of us have the option of moving our hips without touching the wheels. It looks cool. It works on the court. Your chair’s basically one with you when you’re strapped into it.”
Both athletes have set their sights on playing basketball in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. But in the immediate future, they have a national championship tournament to play on their home court at UW-Whitewater, the first time the school has hosted since 2009.
Christian Seidel is a physical education major from Malmo, Sweden.
“I was born with my disability which is spina bifida. I could at first walk normally and I could run. But when I was eight years old, some muscles stopped growing and got shorter and some ligaments would not fully grow in my back and in my legs.
“I got my wheelchair when I was about eight years old. I no longer could play soccer standing up, so I had to find a new sport. My mom practically dragged me to a wheelchair basketball practice, and from there it took off. I was 10 years old.
“I ended up in the same club (team) in Italy with an alumnus from here, Joe Hargrow. He got in contact with Opie (head men’s wheelchair basketball coach Jeremy “Opie” Lade) and created the contact between Opie and I. I came over here to visit and I just loved it here. I fell in love with the school and the atmosphere and the environment. I just felt I belong here.
“I’ve been to many teams, both in Sweden with the Swedish national team and with the junior and senior national team and with my team in Italy. But not many teams made us feel like a family like here at Whitewater.
“I hope to take over for Opie (someday). That’s one goal. Or even better, to go on and start up a new adaptive sports program at another school so the college league grows. Only here in the U.S. can you play high-level sports and (go to) school.”
Danielle “Dani” Ebben plays basketball with a roster of athletes from other countries and from many other states. But Ebben grew up in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, less than 10 miles from her home court at UW-Whitewater where she will appear in the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament.
“I get emotional just thinking about it, the fact that it’s my last one and we get to host. It’s just a huge sense of pride, and the program is held very highly in all of our hearts and all of our minds and a lot of people know about it in the area. So to be able to show off what we do and let people know, ‘Hey, this is Warhawk wheelchair athletics,’ it’s going to be exciting and a really good chance to show all of our friends back home we love what we do.”
Her role on the team cannot be defined solely by game skills unless there are columns in the record book for “high five attempts,” “perseverance percentage” and “mood assists.”
“I think back to the years when I was a freshman and a sophomore and not really sure what was going on, and just the impacts that the older girls had on me and their positive attitudes and the fun-loving environment that they created. That’s really carried over as something I wanted to help create for the younger girls that are honestly the future of this program.
“I was born with my disability. I was born with spina bifida. I kind of always knew wheelchair athletics was around but I was never interested. And then, growing up, my older brother had a friend, John Boie, who played wheelchair basketball. When I was 11 years old he (John) finally convinced me to come watch a game. He said, “You don’t have to play, I just want you to watch. In the weeks following, it kind of stirred up in me and I was really interested in at least giving it a try.
“One of the biggest differences that I noticed right off the bat wasn’t athletically. It was a really good outlet for me to hang out with other kids in wheelchairs because growing up I was usually surrounded by able–bodied people who weren’t in wheelchairs and didn’t have any sort of disability. It gave me a greater sense of belonging to the group, just knowing that I wasn’t the only person. And it also showed me that just because I am in a wheelchair, you can still play sports, you can live a normal life. You just have to do things a different way.”
For the Sprain family, Warhawk wheelchair basketball is a family affair. Lydia Sprain’s disability brought her parents and younger siblings into the world of wheelchair basketball. Growing up, Lydia attended adaptive sports camps at UW-Whitewater. At 13, she began playing with the Mad City Badgers youth team in Madison. After high school, she enrolled at UW-Whitewater and was a member of the national intercollegiate champion women’s teams in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Steve Sprain is the father of the family, which is from Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
Steve: “When Lydia started playing (basketball), her grade-point average in school actually went up a full point. It gave her more of a purpose in life. I remember the day she came home the first time she hit the net with the ball because it’s a long ways up there for these kids. That was a banner day. And the other one was the first time she made a basket. She really took to it all along. We probably knew she was going to go to Whitewater before she went to high school.”
Lydia is the oldest of five siblings, which include younger triplets — Micah, Mariah and Kyla.
Micah: “We knew about the sport when we were four years old when our oldest sister Lydia, started playing it. It’s been around our life, for most of it, anyway. There was a rule change so that ‘AB’s’ (able-bodied players) could play college basketball. Lydia and her boyfriend AJ Messmer encouraged me to start playing.” Micah is only the second able-bodied player to participate on the Warhawk men’s wheelchair basketball team. AJ was the first.
Mariah: “I’m an assistant coach/manager (for the UW-Whitewater women’s wheelchair basketball team). I help do stats during games, and during practices I do the clock, get water, get whatever they need, help set up things. I love it.”
Kyla: “I don’t actually play. I am the head Sprain cheerleader (along with another sister Anyka). We come from a smaller, more rural area so after Lydia started, she was in the newspapers a lot. And definitely did demos around there a lot. One person can really expand that horizon.”
Lydia Sprain, who started it all, is now 25. When she was born, she was not breathing but she pulled through. At around age 1, her parents knew that she would have a disability. When she was an eighth grader, a friend wanted to try wheelchair basketball. Lydia tagged along to a Mad City Badgers practice in Madison. The friend eventually dropped the sport but Lydia kept on through high school and college. After enrolling at UW-Whitewater, she joined the women’s team, which included many past and future Paralympians. In March of 2012, the Warhawks beat their rival, the University of Alabama, in Champaign, Illinois, to win their first national intercollegiate championship.
Lydia: “That year, we weren’t able to beat Alabama a lot (in the regular season). I just remember towards the end (of the championship game), we were, like, we were up and we’re gonna win. It was unbelievable. We all kind of just started screaming and hugging each other. My mom (Bren Radtke) got to come down. It was pure happiness. We all got to take turns to climb or be held up to the ladder to cut the net. That was pretty awesome.
“A lot of the good players came to UW-Whitewater because they knew about the family atmosphere. You could come here and learn from the best basketball players. Whitewater camps are the best in the nation. Even if you don’t come to (college) at Whitewater you’re accepted at Whitewater. Everyone’s accepted. You could be the worst basketball player in the world and you’d still be accepted and you’d still be taught by the best. All the best Paralympians came.
“I love Whitewater, I would do anything for Whitewater. This program gave me a lot, so I want to give back all that I can. It gave me education, friends, confidence. I wouldn’t be who I am without this program “It gave me friends who are family.”
“I got in a car accident in 2011 when I was 19 years old. I lost both of my legs. I knew nothing about being disabled. I used to play soccer. That was everything I had. I’d been playing sports for a majority of my life. I grew up with three brothers. I always played flag football, tackle football and soccer. I didn’t know how to be disabled.
“Dan Price (former women’s wheelchair basketball) saw me in the parking lot (during a tour of UW-Whitewater). He asked, ‘Do you want to play?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know how to play.’ He said, ‘We’ll teach you how to play.’
“My first day of practice was brutal. Mariska (Beijer), Lydia Sprain, almost all the girls encouraged me to come back. It was really hard adapting from able-body sports to adaptive sports. I didn’t know how to move my body. My teammates would reach out to me and give me a hug. It showed me these people really do care about me. Mariska Beijer taught me a lot. I learned a lot about being disabled in general and playing basketball and, just having a perspective on my life.
“I’m still learning every day, about wheelchairs, about my core, about my trunk. I’m learning things about different parts of my body. A lot of people don’t know it but just walking, you actually need a lot of core, a lot of back (strength). And actually right now I’m trying to learn to walk again with prosthetics.
“I had no interest at all but then I just ended up falling in love with the sport. I love the hard work it gives me. It gives me a good workout. I like the team atmosphere. I used to have that playing soccer and now I have found that again playing wheelchair basketball.”
At 18, Lindsey Zurbrugg is the youngest member of the UW-Whitewater women’s wheelchair basketball team and she recently earned a slot on the women’s national team. She grew up in the state of Oregon next to her grandparents’ Christmas tree farm. She has been to all 50 states. A spinal defect that lay dormant for the first 13 years of her life paralyzed her during a summer basketball camp.
“I had something that was called a tethered cord (tethered spinal cord syndrome). I did not know about it until I was 13. I went to a basketball camp. I did a yoga move in the morning. I did (the downward-facing dog pose) and my back really started hurting and in the next 36 hours I gradually became paralyzed from the waist down. Your spinal cord (is supposed to attach) to, like, L1 vertebrae at about your waste. But mine attached to L2-3 so it was like a bungee chord that was overstretched. That caused me to become paralyzed. I got injured in June 2012.
“Once they figured out what was wrong with me, they put me in a rehab hospital. And my recreational nurse was actually the head coach for the junior Portland Wheelblazers so she got me connected with that. Then later I played for the Seattle Junior Sonics. Then the Seattle women’s team. And then I came here. “I’m home schooled, actually. So, this is my first public school experience ever. I have 24/7-access to a gym, which is nice. I live in a dorm with people instead of having my own room all the time.
“UW-Whitewater (wheelchair basketball) has the defensive principles (and) the offensive principles that would be able to get me on the national team for the USA. I think they give the best (training) of all the collegiate schools. It’s my goal to make the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. Currently I am in the top 16 spots for the USA team. There’s going to be the final cut to 12 people, which I’m hoping to make that cut.
“I was in the hospital for about a month after my injury. I was like, ‘this is kind of fun and different.’ Nobody’s ever had that attitude. It sounds kind of weird. But it’s a little bump in the road. Let’s keep on moving in life. Let’s go be awesome.”
September 18, 2017
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