Sport welcomes athletes of all abilities to play
Wheelchair basketball is a challenging and rewarding sport that takes practice and determination. Unfortunately, misconceptions around the sport — from who can play to unawareness about what the sport is — have caused the game to suffer from a lack of players, both in Calgary and nationally.
Many don’t realize that those not requiring a wheelchairare also encouraged to play. Nor do people realize the sport is just as competitive and intense as stand-up basketball. The most obvious difference is really just another piece of equipment.
“The chair is like a tennis racket, or a bob sled or a golf club — it’s a piece of equipment. Just learn how to use it and the rest is basketball,” said Kendra Ohama, player for the women’s team, the Calgary Rollers.
Calgary has two wheelchair basketball teams, the aforementioned Calgary Rollers and the men’s team, the Calgary Grizzlies. There is also a team for players under 15-years-old and an open league for anyone.
A close-knit community
The community of wheelchair basketball is a small one, both in Calgary and across Canada. This presents challenges it also makes for a supportive community.
“You get to know players from all across Canada,” said Lorna Shannon, who coaches and volunteers with Wheelchair Sports Alberta. “Everybody knows each other by first name.”
Ohama has been involved with wheelchair basketball since 1989, when she was approached by a player in a store who told her to come out and play. She now plays for the Calgary Rollers and recently retired from Team Canada after play for 21 years. She says the community aspect of wheelchair basketball is one of her favourite features of the sport.
“Sometimes when you play stand-up ball there are just so many participants. You can get lost in the shuffle,” she said. “But with wheelchair basketball because it’s such a small community it’s like a small family.”
The numbers game
Though the sense of family and community is something that draws Shannon, Ohama and others to the sport, it also is cause for one of the sport’s biggest issues.
“The biggest challenge right now in Canada is numbers,” Ohama said.
Steve Ryan, coach of the Calgary Rollers, agreed.
“As a coach I find the hardest thing is player recruitment, finding a steady stream of new players to join,” he said.
Wheelchair basketball requires 10 people to play a game, five on each team. A lack of players not only prevents teams from being formed and maintained, but also hurts the athletes individually as they cannot get the full experience without a team to be a part of, and teams to play against.
Photo by Michelle Thomas
“Since you don’t have the numbers it’s harder to challenge yourself at (a high) level,” Ohama said. “You can go to the gym, you can shoot hoops, you can run lines, you can practice chair skills, you can go and push weights and you can work on your own cardio but you need nine other players to really get the game experience. We don’t have that in Canada and we don’t have that in Calgary.”
Wheelchair basketball can be played at a fairly casual level all the way up to a highly competitive international level. Ohama has competed in six Paralympics, winning gold in three of them.
When aspiring athletes cannot get that level of competition and experience in Canada, due to lack of numbers, they choose to play elsewhere. Often that elsewhere is the United States where they can play on a college wheelchair basketball team that allows them to practice every day and compete every weekend — an experience they simply can’t get in Canada currently.
Ohama said getting college and university wheelchair basketball teams would help establish that level of competition and keep aspiring Canadian athletes in Canada.
“The States is so large in numbers so it’s much harder in Canada,” she said.
But several programs similar to those in the United States have been put in place or are in the process of being put in place, such as in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
Everybody is welcome
Another hindrance on recruiting players is a misunderstanding about who can play. Able-bodied people are encouraged to play as well.
“Wheelchair basketball, at least at the competitive level, it’s an integrated sport so able-bodied people play alongside with us,” Ryan said, adding that everyone must play in a wheelchair.
“I think it gives able-bodied people a greater appreciation for the effort it takes day-to-day to be pushing a chair around and developing your skills while still in the chair,” he said.
Shannon, who is able-bodied herself, said there are many clubs and cities that would not have a team if not for the inclusion of able-bodied players.
Wheelchair basketball uses a classification system to keep teams level. Each player is assigned a class from 0.5 to 4.5. The classes take into consideration each player’s ability to perform skills specific to wheelchair basketball. Athletes in a lower class are more limited in their functional skills and athletes in a higher class have little to no limitations. When each player’s points are added together the team cannot have more than 14 points on the floor at any given time.
The classification system is used internationally in wheelchair basketball and you must be a classifiable player to play. Being aware of your teammate’s class becomes another aspect to the game.
“Knowing all the different levels of ability and disability is really important as a player,” Ohama said. “Because of people’s levels of ability, they can only do certain things on the floor, so it’s a challenge to every player to know what that person can do.”
“They might have people and it’s not enough for a full team, but if they have a few able-bodied then they can form a team,” Shannon said.
Ohama said those involved with wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair sports in general also face being seen only for their disability and not for the sport.
“They look at the disability and don’t realize that athletes who compete at that level train just as much or have the same challenges as somebody who is an Olympian,” Ohama said.
Shannon said many people assume the sport is not very competitive and are surprised when they watch or play for the first time and find that it is.
“There’s a lot of players, especially the women, who have played university senior women’s basketball and then when they have any issues (with their knees or legs) they start coming to wheelchair basketball and they’ve been finding out that it’s just as much fun and as competitive,” she said.
Ryan said that is the competitive aspect of the game that initially made him want to play
“Before I was injured I was always a competitive person,” he said. “I played soccer, bowling, hockey, all sorts of things; being competitive is part of my nature so it seemed like a natural fit.”
Getting young people involved
Getting more people, especially young people, informed about the sport would also help Canadian teams get more players. Ohama described this as a win-win for the sport and the new participants.
“Every time I’m wheeling down the street and I see somebody in a wheelchair, a young person, I’ll stop and talk to them and tell them about the sport but quite often they’ve never even thought about it,” Ohama said.
“Young kids who are able-bodied, you want to get them to participate in some type of sport to keep active,” she added. “It’s good for your health and keeps you out of trouble hopefully, and disabled kids are no different.”
For those interested in getting involved with the sport, drop-in sessions take place on Wednesdays at Mount Royal University. Equipment and instruction is provided. More information can also be found at www.calgarygrizzlies.ab.ca