Wheelchair basketball coach Ron Lykins still wishes he appreciated the Paralympic Games more when he first got involved.
In 1992, he was the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball coach but skipped out on the closing ceremonies after they lost. In 2000, he coached the women again but said he shrugged it off as no big deal.
For the 2016 games, Lykins said he plans on appreciating every opportunity.
“There’s an urgency there,” Lykins said. “One opportunity. Make the most out of it and enjoy everything with it.”
On Jan. 21, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association announced Lykins as the men’s wheelchair basketball coach for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will mark the fourth time the 51-year-old has been a coach in the Paralympics and the first time he has headed the men’s team. Lykins said he accepted the offer almost immediately.
There’s a lot left to do before the games begin, Lykins said.
First a staff must be hired. Players have to be recruited and trials need to be organized. Once the team is assembled, they’ll play in a series of tournaments that lead to the Paralympics. Lykins said it gets more fun every time he does this.
“Each one just gets better and better,” Lykins said. “I remember in Beijing (for the 2008 Paralympic Games) when the closing ceremonies were going on, I didn’t want to leave the track.”
Back in 1979, when Lykins began his studies at the University of Kentucky, he knew nothing about the sport he has since come to love.
“The first time I saw somebody who used a wheelchair all the time was when I was at UK,” Lykins said. “I’d watch a little bit (of wheelchair basketball) because I’d be in there playing (basketball) and it was different – I had no idea what they were doing.”
Lykins needed volunteer hours, he said. He heard the wheelchair basketball team was always looking for help. Lykins had loved basketball since he was a kid in Chicago — he still remembers shooting baskets in his childhood backyard. The job was in walking distance, and there was no reason not to do it, Lykins said.
From then on, he got a bit lucky, Lykins said. The teacher who led the UK men’s wheelchair basketball team was also the commissioner of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Lykins said the commissioner took him in, and it was through this relationship that he found himself in the game and connected with the players.
“I realized ‘These guys are just like me,’” Lykins said. “They’ll push to class, I’ll walk to class.”
After a handful of coaching jobs, including a few with the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team, he eventually got lucky and landed a job at MU. He said in his four years in Columbia, the team has gotten better with each season. Every year, they set a school record for highest winning percentage.
Lykins pushes his team to their full potential, not only to succeed on the court, but off the court too, freshman team member Ben Mayforth said. He said real-world success and an education are the most important things to Lykins.
Mayforth also said Lykins encourages players to be enthusiastic. He wants players to come in and be ready to play ball. He wants them to stand on the sidelines and cheer on their teammates. Lykins’s enthusiasm often rubs off on the team, Mayforth said.
“We came here to play ball, partially, but he really, really wants us to be enthusiastic,” Mayforth said. “And he carries his enthusiasm over to us and he tries to get us enthusiastic about the little things.”
Lykins said it’s this enthusiasm that he wants his Team USA players to feel in 2016. He wants them to go to the opening ceremonies, to attend other sporting events and to meet other teams.
Lykins said he remembers how much fun it was for him to meet people from other parts of the world. At the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, he said, he scanned for a seat at a dining hall and ended up sitting with some people he didn’t know. He found out later they were from Iraq. To his surprise, they got along, Lykins said.
“I’m sitting in there with all my USA gear on,” Lykins said. “And that was after 9/11 and all that stuff, and I went ‘Alright,’ and just started talking to these guys and realized this is a pretty cool thing.”
Lykins, who will be going to his seventh Paralympics in 2016, said he wants to fully appreciate the opportunity. But more than anything else, he said he wants his team to do what he failed to when he first began coaching — take it all in.
“Make the most out of this, take in everything,” Lykins said. “Don’t just be a player – you got to get your rest, you’re here to do this stuff — but try to enjoy some of the other things.”