Local students represent U.S. in Paralympic Gamesby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
Golden Valley, Minn. — A group of local high school students will travel to Australia Thursday to represent the United States on the national youth wheelchair basketball team at the Australian Paralympic Youth Games in Melbourne.
In Golden Valley, members of the Courage Center's Junior Rolling Timberwolves basketball team move their wheelchairs so fast the air on the court wreaks of burned rubber.
They spend hours practicing wheelchair moves and arm strengthening exercises. The players are disciplined and focused; there's little joking around or talking. Before ever handling a ball in practice, they pour sweat.
It's not what 18-year-old Robbie Wilhelm expected when he joined the team.
"I thought it was nothing really that exciting or that aggressive," Wilhelm said. "I thought, oh they're in wheelchairs and they're not going to do much. I think that happens to most people. They think of wheelchair basketball as not moving that fast, but you have to witness it to see how intense it is."
It took Wilhelm a while to get to that level of intensity. Until recently, he hadn't considered wheelchair sports.
Wilhelm had polio as a child and the illness weakened his legs. With effort, he's still able to walk, so he hadn't tried a wheelchair until a few years ago.
A friend's persistent mother finally shoved him in a chair and onto the basketball court. Wilhelm found he loved the sport.
"Now, there [are] some schools that are recruiting me and there's scholarship money involved," Wilhelm said. "It helped my grades because there's something to work for now."
Paralympic basketball has given other players something to work for as well. The U.S. team won the Games in 2005 and took silver in 2007. Former team members have gone on to the International Paralympic Games.
That's the goal for many Junior Timberwolves players. The team practices together twice a week and players also spend hours training alone at home.
Rose Hollermann, 13, is one of the youngest on the local and national teams, as well as the only female.
"I'm in my chair at least an hour and a half a day," Hollermann said. "My basketball chair pushing and shooting; I mainly practice outside, just at my garage at my house shooting baskets and stuff. I have a glow in the dark ball and a glow in the dark net and hoop thing. I shoot out in the dark all the time."
By all accounts, Hollermann is one of the toughest members of the team.
As a young girl, she could keep up while running with her older brothers. But she had to adjust after a car accident at age five kept her from walking for a year and a half. Now, she has partial use of her legs and is back on swimming, track, field archery and sled hockey teams.
During last season's wheelchair basketball national championship, Hollermann played even though she was sick. She said she threw up so often they kept a bucket next to the bench. She just kept going. So -- for the most part -- other players don't treat Hollermann differently because she's the only girl.
"They're very protective of me -- like there's a rule, no talking to guys," she said. "But other than that, it doesn't matter that I'm a girl."
When the players practice, it almost looks like they're trying to ram each other's chairs or tip each other over. Coach Mike Bauler said he wants to avoid fouls, but they have to prepare for the confrontational style used by Australian teams.
"The objective is to get in the other person's way and part of doing that is hitting each other basically, so it's real loud and real physical," Bauler said. "There's a lot of banging, clinging sparks flying from metal grinding on each other. The way we teach defensive wheelchair basketball is to get our chairs in front of their chairs and protect the basket."
Just like on any basketball court, on this court it's all about who has position.
The trip to Australia for the competition costs about a $1,000, plus the price of the plane ticket. The Courage Center players raised the money with grants, scholarships and the generosity of their parents.
Once they reach Australia, they'll have three days to practice with the other members of the national team. They'll be one of twelve teams competing. Team USA's first game is on Tuesday.
- Morning Edition, 10/01/2009, 8:40 a.m.