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  • Writer's pictureIşıl Tanyeri

My interview with the Members of the U.S. Men's and Women's Wheelchair Basketball TeamsMy interview

Originally published on ABC Medical blog in 2016:

As Team USA is finishing up its final round of training before heading down to Rio at the end of August, we are excited to present the U.S. Paralympic Men's and Women’s wheelchair basketball interviews to shed some light into the lives of some of the most incredible athletes and coaches in the world. Many thanks to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association for helping coordinate the interviews for Team ABC and for letting us use photos of the athletes. 

We wish Team USA Best of Luck in Brazil!

Stephanie Wheeler - Head Coach of the U.S. Paralympic Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team

Stephanie Wheeler, as the head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Women’s wheelchair basketball team talked about what she thinks makes her team so unique. 

“Chemistry” she says. “I have never seen a team that has so much trust, love and such unselfish care for each other."

This strong culture of the women’s team seems to stem from the selection process that Stephanie and her coaching staff had early on in June.

“It was difficult to select the final twelve girls. As always, we went by the few important criteria we have always applied in our selection process. First, are you a high-level athlete? Do you have the physical skills we are looking for? Next, are you flexible? How easily do you adjust in difficult circumstances? Last but not least, do you have the character that it takes to be part of this team? Along with that, we look at a few things: Are you trustworthy?, How badly do you want this?, Can you show that to us?," shares Coach Wheeler. 

The U.S. Women’s team qualified for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games by winning the Parapan American Games, held in Toronto, Canada in 2015. They dominated the competition by outscoring their opponents by 55 points per game and finished by defeating the host country, Canada for the gold medal.

Having won three national championships while playing with the University of Illinois, Stephanie made Team USA in 2001 and helped her team win gold medal in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games.  Her passion for basketball and desire to help other athletes grow their talent led her down the path to become the head coach of the women’s team at her alma mater in 2009. “I have always wanted to coach,” Stephanie says.

In 2013, soon after Team USA returned from London, Stephanie Wheeler was announced as the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Paralympic wheelchair basketball team. “It’s a title that is bigger than yourself. It’s been an incredibly fun journey so far!,"she shares. 

For Stephanie, growing the fan base and changing perceptions is as important as coaching her athletes.

“Usually, the image of an athlete in a wheelchair can be different from the reality" she states. "People who are watching adaptive sports begin to see disability differently. You see one of our girls shoot a three pointer and you suddenly realize that these girls can do anything they want.  Also, these are just great sport athletes. Full stop. No caveat needed. They’re strong, talented athletes and very fun to watch" continues Stephanie.

Being a pretty young team, it is important to acknowledge the amount of progress the Women's team has made since 2013 to make it to the Rio Games. Kudos to Coach Stephanie Wheeler and her assistant coaching staff! 

Christina Schwab

Co-captain of the women’s team, Christina Schwab has quite an impressive résumé with an extensive international experience as a two-sport athlete in wheelchair basketball and track. Having been to four Paralympic games and four world championships, Christina is now looking forward to wrapping up her last Paralympic experience in Brazil, and hopefully adding a third gold medal to her basketball career.

After winning gold in both Athens and Beijing, playing alongside her coach Stephanie Wheeler, Christina, took a break from basketball. She moved to Denver, CO and soon became a member of the U.S.  track team for the London Games. In 2013, she had her son, Lincoln, who is now an adorable three year-old, and loves watching her mom compete with his father. 

Coming from a small town in  Dane, Wisconsin, Christina says she would have never imagined herself traveling to places she has been with the team. 

“Wheelchair basketball changed my life” she says. “It gave me many new friendships and relationships, and it gave me plenty of opportunities to see the world. It opened up my world a lot!”

Since the day she started playing wheelchair basketball, Christina knew she wanted to reach the highest level possible. “I knew I had to work hard for that goal," she shares.

Being the experienced athlete that she is, we asked Christina to share her thoughts about the new women’s team that is forming under Coach Wheeler. “This is a very focused team. It’s got all the right pieces to it.” She praises the coaches and the staff for their incredible work and for their help keeping the team spirit strong.  “We are so lucky to have such an incredible staff from coaches to psychologists to keep us together and help us get to where we are today.”

Christina is looking forward to their first game against France on September 8th at 10 am

“I’m already watching the Olympic Games now and just imagining myself in that same arena representing my country. It’s an incredible feeling” says Christina. 

For Schwab, her source of inspiration and motivation stems from her love for her country. “Wearing USA across my chest is my proudest moment!” she states. 

So, what's next for Christina  Schwab after coming back from Brazil? 

Earlier this summer, the paralympic athlete was appointed as the head coach for the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater women’s wheelchair basketball team, her first collegiate coaching opportunity and  the second head coach in the university's program history.

Gail Gaeng

“How are you feeling about everything happening in your life now?” we asked Gail at the start of our conversation. “I feel like a kid in a candy shop to be honest with you!”, she says joyfully.

Gail Gaeng, a Maryland native has a much deeper appreciation for what it means to be on Team USA. After having tried out for the team five times and named as an alternate, Gail admits she came close to quitting many times. Now the young athlete knows what it takes to make the team and is excited for the opportunity to represent the United States in the Paralympic Games in Brazil. 

We asked Gail where she found her strength and motivation to go back and try year after year.  

“My family! As an all-athlete family, they understood my frustration, but they picked me up every time I was feeling down. They encouraged me to work harder each and every time. I was really young then.”

She talks about discipline and dedication as the two important traits that can help qualify you for the national team. “You have to be 110% dedicated. You will be going to the gym in the morning on a nice summer day, when everyone else is enjoying the pool," says she. 

Gail’s first international experience with the team came in 2014, when everyone realized they had a lot to learn. “Since then, we have taken huge steps in every game and every training” she shares. Like her teammates, Gail values trust and self-motivation. “By staying in touch with everyone all throughout the year and knowing that they’re working just as hard, it gives me the motivation to do my part from where I am,” she adds.

This summer, prior to the Paralympic Games, the women’s team got together to play friendly games overseas as well as in the U.S. “In Canada, we learned a lot from each other and worked harder”. Against Germany, the team’s hard work paid off and they won the entire tournament.

Apart from her wheelchair basketball career, Gail is also an advocate for inclusive sports.  As the student-athlete representative for ECAC’s inclusive strategy model, the Paralympian believes that athletes, regardless of their ability level, should have equal rights.

“I am one of six in my family, who are all really hard working athletes. Every day, I see that we do the same things, live the same lives. There is barely any difference. So, why have separate opportunities in sports?," she states. 

We congratulate and support Gail in her mission to create inclusive sports opportunities for adaptive athletes! 

Gail Gaeng's message to her teammates: “Play hard and have confidence in yourself. No one can stop us!”

Ron Lykins - Head Coach of the US Paralympics Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team

As the U.S. Men’s wheelchair basketball team wrapped up their second to last training session in Colorado Springs last week before heading down to Rio de Janeiro, Coach Lykins felt good about his team’s performance and proud of the improvement they have  made in the past three years.

Ron Lykins has an extensive background in coaching wheelchair basketball teams. He is not only the current head coach of the University of Missouri wheelchair basketball team, but he was also the coach of the U.S. Paralympic Women’s wheelchair basketball teams in 2004 and 2008, leading them twice to gold medal. He’s back to the Paralympic side of things after a short break and is excited to be the head coach of the men’s team.

“This is a great group of guys. They are selfless. Most importantly, they put the team before anything, even before themselves. That is very important!” says Ron Lykins. 

For Coach Lykins, the best part about coaching the U.S. team is to have the opportunity to represent the United States.

“It’s an honor to work with these athletes on this job, to see them improve day by day and to witness their talent reach a peak. It’s exciting to be part of a group that represents the USA. I am proud of them, of what they have sacrificed and what they have accomplished,” he states. 

Matt Scott 

The 4-time Paralympic athlete, Matt Scott,  has an incredible energy and a contagious laugh, which makes anyone around him feel good right away, even over the phone!

Matt Scott kicked off his Paralympic journey in Athens when he was only 17 years old.

“I was a kid when I went to Athens. In 2008, Beijing was a learning experience, the London Games was a wakeup call to the team, and here we are in 2016 Rio Paralympics, with the most talented team ever!”

With less than 20 days left to the Paralympic Games and to the team’s first game against the host country Brazil, we asked Matt about the current spirit within the team. 

“We’re doing great! Everyone is really excited to be in Rio. Believe it or not, there is absolutely no tension. We are not comparing ourselves to anyone at this point. We are at the best level we can get. We want to prove ourselves to the world now.” The US Men’s Parlaympic Team has not won gold since 1988. Matt calls on everyone to support the team during the Paralympic games. “We have a pretty good chance to win this time, but we need all the support we can get from our fans. We cannot do it without your support.”

Having an extensive professional experience overseas, Matt also shared his thoughts on the fan support for wheelchair basketball in Europe in comparison to the United States.

“In Europe, wheelchair basketball has reached the general audience; whereas in the U.S. the fan base doesn’t go much beyond friends and family.  There, it’s about the team or that sports club that gets the fans to follow their teams around closely. They see us as ‘athletes,’ not as disabled wheelchair users.”

“What is it that we need to change here in the U.S?” we asked Matt. 

“We have to become mainstream. We need to reach out to the right audience: to those who will take our sport to the next level and will be the advocates for it,” stated Matt.

Hearing a world-class athlete, like Matt Scott, say this is a significant call to action to all sports fans in the U.S. The good news is that the Rio Games is ahead of us. It is our best chance to prove ourselves to our athletes as fans. Right, ABC Nation and all Sports Fans?

So, where can we start? How do we become better sports fans for the Paralympic Games?

 “Keep up with the stats, share, post, comment. Use social media to wish us good luck. We are representing something bigger than us. We are representing everyone in the U.S. We want what everyone wants; a gold medal," Matt Scott answers. 

Steve Serio- Co-captain

“It’s the end of a long summer of really hard work. We are all very excited to travel to Rio soon!” the co-captain of the US Paralympic Men’s wheelchair basketball team, Steve Serio kicks off our conversation. 

A three-time Paralympic athlete, Steve Serio played an instrumental role at the ParaPan Games in Toronto last year, helping secure Team USA’s spot in the Rio Paralympic Games. 

Steve has also been traveling to various media events representing Team USA, and helping promote the Paralympic Games. One of these events was the “Rio on the Hudson” sponsored by The City, to try to build  awareness to the Olympic and Paralympic Games and to get more fan engagement for the Paralympics.

After 5 years of professional wheelchair basketball experience in Germany, Steve was also able to provide us with a different perspective on wheelchair basketball fans around the world.

“It’s different in Europe," shares Steve. People focus more on the team and not the sport. Wheelchair athletes are considered professional athletes. Fans go to watch athletic competition. They have access to all team information and are able to check out the game schedule easily. They follow their team news and updates online pretty regularly,” he continues.

"How about in the U.S.?" we asked. 

Since his first Paralympic experience in Beijing, the fan support in the U.S. has gone up a lot. For instance, London was a lot better than Beijing and Rio is already better than London. Steve adds that the the level is still not at the level they would like to have, but there is constant improvement each time, which is promising. 

Serio also praises PER4MAX for their support in building some of the best wheelchairs for the wheelchair basketball athletes on the U.S. Team. "I think most of us are using their chair, because it's clearly the best chair for wheelchair basketball." 

Similar to his teammate Matt Scott, Steve also believes that social media is a big contributor to their mission to promote adaptive sports. “Snapchat, NWBA’s Facebook Live posts, Instagram, all the social media channels contribute to what we are trying to achieve”. He gives a shout out to NWBA for being supportive and getting the live videos from their trainings out to general public, so they can follow the team more closely and instant updates.

We asked Steve, who he thinks is the best among the men's team to follow on social media during the Paralympic Games.

“Matt Scott! Without a doubt, he is the best one to follow! I think he's on every social media that's out there!" 

Steve is looking forward to the first game with Brazil as well as the game with Germany. "I have a lot of close  friends on the German team and I am excited  to see them again!" he shares. 

Last but not least, the co-captain's birthday is coming up on September 8th, the same day the Men's team is playing their very first game against host country Brazil.  We invite all Sports Fans to watch this crucial game (of course every game is crucial and you should watch it all!) against the host country Brazil, show your support to Team USA, and send your birthday wishes to Co-Captain Steve Serio on social media!

We cannot wait to watch the Games and cheer for our teams during the Paralympic Games in throughout September. Mark your calendars: Both Men's and Women's teams are playing their first games on September 8th! The U.S. Women are playing France at 10 am and the Men's team is up against the host Brazil at 3:15 pm. 

For a Complete Schedule of the Wheelchair Basketball Games, click here.

We are also honored to have the opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro to cover the games live and interview the Team USA athletes, as part of the Mpower Sports media team. For instant updates from Rio de Janeiro, make sure to follow Mpower Sports & Recreation and ABC Medical on social media.  Don't forget: #WeAreAllSportsFans

We wish the US Paralympic Men's and Women's whelechair basketball teams.

Best of Luck in Rio! Go Team USA!

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