"I really think that basketball has not only changed, but saved, Dan's life," says Peggy Dye. According to Peggy, her 16-year-old son Dan is a completely different person after joining a wheelchair basketball team three years ago.
Dan gave the idea of wheelchair basketball a halfhearted reception. But even with the lukewarm enthusiasm mom jumped at the chance to sign him up after they checked out a team practice. Her hope was that it would give him a reason to get out of his room and the opportunity to meet peers who can relate to being a teen with a physical disability.
Dan was born with semi-fibular hemimelia, a condition where a child is born with part or all of the fibula missing. He has endured surgeries, leg-lengthening treatments, and time where he used a wheelchair every day. Now with his prosthetic leg Dan is completely mobile. But typical sports are not something in which he was ever able to participate. That is until he found wheelchair basketball.
Now a junior at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Dan is in the middle of his third season with the Windy City Warriors, an adapted sports program of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. "When I first started basketball I did it because it seemed like the only sport I could physically do. Now it's something I look forward to doing. I enjoy it," Dan says.
Wheelchair basketball is for anyone with permanent lower extremity impairment such as hip, knee or lower body impairments. If you are an amputee, a paraplegic, have cerebral palsy, or a spinal cord injury you may be eligible to play. You do not need to be confined to a wheelchair. Wheelchair sports simply provide a level playing field by eliminating the limitations of the disability.
Peggy's hope of Dan becoming more active and finding peers with similar situations slowly became a reality. His first year was admittedly a tough one. There were struggles within the team. Although Dan met other teens in similar situations with disabilities, he wasn't sure he wanted to continue. But Peggy encouraged him to stick with it.
The next year, Dan immediately clicked with his new coaches and so did the other players. Dan felt more comfortable. He even began to click better with his teammates. There was a real change going on from within the team.
But there were going to be some new expectations placed on the athletes. "One of those expectations was a grade requirement. I wasn't sure Dan would be able to meet it." Peggy tears up as she recalls going to the coaches thinking that her son had finally found something he enjoys and was in jeopardy of losing it because of his grades. "I am eating my words now. Dan has gone from a 1.7 average in school to a 3.0." She attributes it all to the coaches. They offered to help Dan with his homework and even helped him study for the ACT. As the other players heard about it, they began coming in for help too.
Life has changed for Dan in so many ways. This 6-foot-2, 240-pound 16-year-old lost 30 pounds with the constant encouragement of yet another coach who promotes healthy lifestyles, joined an adapted sports adventure club, enjoys adapted kayaking, and will be joining the high school winter/spring track and field team.
Dan has really come out of his shell.
"I like hanging out with my teammates and doing stupid teenage boy stuff," he says. "This year we have a new teammate so every time we go to a team dinner we say it's his birthday so they will sing and bring a free dessert. Or the time we sang 99 bottles of beer on the wall the entire way to our tournament. I would say since joining the warriors, I am more outgoing, talkative and am willing to try new things."
He even has a nickname on the team. Dan, aka Kool-Aid, got that name because after he makes a shot he yells "OH YEAH" like the Kool-Aid man from the commercials.
Dan's team, the Windy City Warriors, is ranked third in the nation and have won the IHSA Wheelchair Basketball Championship an amazing eight out of the last nine years. So on top of everything else, Kool-Aid has become a championship athlete in a fast-paced, action-packed sport.
Yet perhaps the most amazing outcome of his three years with the Warriors has nothing to do with basketball and more about life in general.
"My coaches and basketball have taught me to care about my grades, my health, my friends and most importantly it has taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to," he says. "Now I know that my handicap wasn't holding me back, I was. Now, nothing can stop me!"
If you have a child that might be interested in learning about wheelchair basketball, you can contact the Windy City Warriors through Becky Prince at WDSRA (630) 681-0962. You can also see the team in action as they host the February Classic Feb. 1-2. Teams from all over the Midwest will be rolling into the Fountain View Recreation Center in Carol Stream.
• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.