In the world of athletics, wheelchair sports often gets second-billing due to the misconception that the sport isn’t as intense as able-bodied sports.
However, by integrating disabled and able-bodied wheelchair players, basketball teams in Calgary are working to prove that isn’t the case.
Kendra Ohama, one of the earliest members of the Calgary Grizzlies wheelchair basketball team and a founding member of the Calgary Rollers wheelchair basketball team, agrees that wheelchair sports are rarely thought of in the same way as other sports.
Having been paralyzed from the waist down following a car accident at the age of 16, Ohama to this day faces the struggle of recruiting new players and newly-injured individuals who don’t play because of this misconception. Because they are denying that they are disabled.
“Sometimes when you [have a] new injury, you don’t want to accept the fact that you are in a wheelchair,” says Ohama.
The idea of wheelchair basketball as a disabled sport was not something that Mount Royal Cougars basketball star Maria Blanco struggled with when deciding to join the Grizzlies, but she agrees that it is an issue.
“One hundred per cent [there is a misconception]. I never really looked at the sport before I started playing,” says Blanco.
For her own part, Ohama says she may have never tried wheelchair basketball if a member of the Grizzlies hadn’t introduced her to how fast-paced it could be – even though she played sports as a kid.
“It was so exciting because when I came out to watch, these guys were so fast and so talented, moving their chairs back and forth, turning, stopping on a dime. They’re controlling the ball with their hands, they’re pushing the wheels with their hands,” Ohama says.
The pace of wheelchair basketball is real. The same pain felt driving to the lane can be experienced in a wheelchair or not.
Ohama recalls players flying down the court and moving so quickly that, if one of them was fouled, they would fling out of their chair.
At one point, two players fell over each other because they hit their chairs together. Since then, straps have been required to stop players from falling out of their wheelchairs.
After watching her first game, Ohama knew she had to get on the court herself.
“I fell in love with it because it was finally a sport that I could actually get involved in,” she says.
Unlike Ohama, Blanco didn’t fall in love with the sport until she played it herself.
She was convinced to become a member of the Grizzlies because of the technicalities and complexities of the game – something that helps her in her other role as a member of Mount Royal University’s women’s basketball team.
“I feel like they are similar sports but [have] completely different styles of play,” Blanco explains. “If I had to say what’s more physical or fast or intense, I would say wheelchair basketball.”
It is these qualities that have attracted other able-bodied athletes such as Blanco to the game.
“A lot of people think that you have to have a disability to play but Canada is one of the few countries that allows able-bodied people to play in their leagues,” says Ohama.
Having able-bodied players can be helpful to game play. Although everyone is in a chair, Ohama has trouble picking up the ball from the floor because being paralyzed from the waist down makes bending forward difficult.
As an able-bodied player, Blanco has more movement. And that’s partially why involving able-bodied people has always been important for Ohama, with both the Grizzlies and the Rollers having three such players.
Still, she doesn’t think of the team as being comprised of able-bodied and disabled players. Rather, she thinks of everyone as being equal.
“I never really thought of it [as a sport for disabled people]. I just jumped and started playing. So, [if people are disabled or not is] not something I’ve really considered,” Blanco says.
She believes that the wheelchair is just part of the equipment for the sport, similar to needing skates or a racket.
This understanding has helped Blanco get into wheelchair basketball and become part of a unified team of all different types of people.
Ohama would love to better integrate able-bodied players with disabled players.
She recognizes that able-bodied people often feel uncomfortable the first time they play wheelchair basketball, but knows that after getting in the chair and playing, most people get over it.
“They see how competitive it is and they see that people with disabilities are really good and they have to actually train hard and fight hard to play the sport. Then it becomes more about the sport then it becomes about the disability,” Ohama says.
This is what Ohama hopes for: that people will see wheelchair basketball as a sport equal to stand-up basketball.
Editors Note: This story is part of the Calgary Journal’s November-December print issue. You can find a digital version here, or grab a copy at news stands across the city.
Editor: Dan Khavkin| firstname.lastname@example.org