Wheelchair basketball relay raises scholarship funds, disability awareness

Physical therapy professor Carmen Abbott: “Everybody that does it seems to get a lot out of it, other than just pure fun.”

The sounds of people shouting and balls bouncing filled the Historic Brewer Fieldhouse at the Student Recreation Complex on Friday night. At least 100 people came to participate in the 16th annual Wheelchair Basketball Relay to promote disability awareness and raise scholarship money for the MU wheelchair basketball team.

Teams of four people rotated between eight stations that simulated living with various disabilities. One of the stations, Roll With It, involved sitting in a wheelchair and piling various items, such as an empty two-liter bottle and a Tupperware bin, into the wheelchair with the person. The participant then tried to roll across the width of a basketball court without dropping anything. Another station taught the basics of wheelchair basketball, and another was a seated volleyball game with a low net.

Physical therapy professor Carmen Abbott explained that many kinds of disabilities put people in wheelchairs, which other stations emulated. The minefield station, in which blindfolded participants had to rely on their teammates to help them navigate a makeshift maze, simulated life for people with both visual and physical impairments.

At the Jeopardy station, which was set up like the popular game show, the teams learned about disabilities that leave people unable to speak. Volunteers quickly taught the teams sign language, the only way the teams were allowed to answer the questions.

First-year physical therapy student Devan Coleman said it was interesting trying to navigate the minefield and learning what it was like to be blind and in a wheelchair. Shooting baskets from a wheelchair was a bit frustrating, she said, because it could only be done with the arms.

“You forget how much you rely on your legs for everything,” she said.

Abbott was on the MU Disability Center’s sports committee when the center came up with the idea for the relay about 20 years ago. A few years after starting it, the center underwent leadership changes and was unable to continue the event.

“I thought, ‘No, we have to keep the event going,’” Abbott said. “I thought it was really important and worthwhile, and everybody that does it seems to get a lot out of it, other than just pure fun.”

Abbott called upon the physical therapy students and members of the health professions thematic learning community, Four Winds, to be volunteers so the relay could continue. The Disability Center, MizzouRec and the wheelchair basketball team help coordinate the event.

The wheelchair basketball team formed in 2003 with the help of then-state Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia. Graham lobbied the Missouri legislature in the late 1990s to get funding for the team. The team had five members during its first season, 2005–06. A decade later, the team has 11 members.

Head Coach Ron Lykins has coached both the men’s and women’s U.S. national wheelchair basketball teams, and he will coach the 2016 men’s team in the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games this September. Wheelchair basketball coaching opportunities are few and far between, he said, and he saw a great opportunity at MU when he took the job in 2009.

“It was just too good of an offer to turn down,” he said.

Lykins is proud of how much the program has grown over the past seven years. He said the quality of players has increased dramatically and the team gets better every year.

“It’s exciting to be around a group of guys who are excited about being there and want to get better,” Lykins said.

The team practices every weekday from 5:30–8 a.m. at the fieldhouse, and individual players come back to the complex later in the day to work on skills or strength training.

“These kids put a lot into coming to school here,” Lykins said. “All the work they do academically and to be on the basketball team, that’s motivation enough for me to get up and come in here (at 5:30 a.m.)”

He said the team members come from all over the U.S., from Washington to Maryland, and the majority have prior experience when they join the team. MU is one of seven intercollegiate wheelchair basketball programs in the world, and a few members of the team have athletic scholarships, which are partially funded by the relay.

James Bohnett, a junior from San Jose, California, has been playing wheelchair basketball since he was 7 years old. He has been on the wheelchair basketball team since his freshman year at MU and has watched his less experienced teammates develop their playing skills.

“The growth with some of these players that I’ve seen is more than just amazing to me,” Bohnett said.

He described a former teammate, Matt Bollig, who joined the team three years ago after being injured. Bollig was new to both the sport and the experience of being in a wheelchair, so he had a lot to learn when he started playing.

“There’s a variety of different skills you have to develop before (wheelchair basketball) becomes an easy and daily routine,” Bohnett said.

It only took Bollig, who was already athletic, a few months to learn the sport, Bohnett said. He also mentioned senior Trevor Hoffman, who joined the team his sophomore year, as another example of incredible growth as a player.

Hoffman said Lykins saw him playing stand-up basketball at the recreational complex and asked him to try wheelchair basketball.

“The next day, I tried it and I liked it,” Hoffman said. “I kept trying it, and I just kept putting time and effort into it. I’ve done it for the last three years, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Though he grew up playing basketball, it took Hoffman about a year to get used to playing it in a wheelchair, he said. However, he came to enjoy the sport and the company of his teammates, whom he will miss after he graduates in May.

“It’s going to be kind of sad not seeing them every morning,” Hoffman said. “(We’re) like a family.”

The entire team was present at the relay, which Bohnett said has always been an enjoyable experience and an educational opportunity for its attendees.

“The people who come here (are) extremely active, excited people,” he said. “Everyone that has come for this relay has been a huge amount of fun.”

Edited by Waverly Colville | wcolville@themaneater.com

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