Golden opportunity: Wheelchair basketball team could win gold at 2008 Paralympic Games
“We’re definitely there to take care of business,” said player Jeremy Lade.
The team, including eight members of the UW-Whitewater wheelchair basketball team, has been training every day for more than four months in preparation for the international competition.
“All together, we probably spend six, seven, eight hours a day playing basketball,” Lade said.
Besides scrimmaging, the team’s practice at Roseman Gym includes passing and shooting drills, weight lifting to build strength and cardiovascular exercise to build endurance.
But in the days approaching the team’s Wednesday departure for Beijing, practices have been less intense. Instead of “beating up on each other” in games, they’ve focused on refining skills.
The team has the depth to compete against some of the best wheelchair basketball teams in the world, head coach Steve Wilson said.
“We could play any lineup at any time … and we’ve shown that,” he said. “There are lineups that are stronger than others, but all have characteristics that bring things to the floor.”
The Paralympic men’s wheelchair basketball team is like the Olympic men’s basketball team that competed in Beijing just a couple weeks ago, said assistant coach Tracy Chynoweth.
The Olympic team was nicknamed the “Redeem Team” for winning gold and bringing back the glory of U.S. basketball 16 years after the “Dream Team.”
The Paralympic team could earn a similar moniker if it erases its “disappointing” seventh-place finish at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, he said.
“We’re not head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world, but we’re among the best in the world,” he said.
Chynoweth said Canada is the team to beat. They won gold at both the 2000 and 2004 games.
“We’re the team that can give them a run for their money,” he said.
The newcomers to international competition, including UW-Whitewater junior Matt Lesperance, will be relying heavily on the team’s Paralympic veterans for support.
“We’re playing in the top level of basketball, and we’re playing against the top level of athletes,” he said. “That’s tough.”
Lade, who’s playing in his second Paralypmic Games, said he tries to keep his fellow players focused on playing solid basketball amid the hype.
“The pressure’s there,” he said. “The games aren’t there next year. Any bad shooting day can be the difference between medaling and not medaling. A game can be broken down in just one play.”
But the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat at the Paralympic Games are different from the same experiences of Olympic athletes. The games won’t be broadcast on network or cable television. The athletes won’t be interviewed by sportscasters. Fans won’t be tracking the medal count on the Internet.
“That’s not the reason we’re competing,” Lade said. “We’re doing it because we love the sport.”
Competition in Beijing begins Sunday, Sept. 7, and finishes with medal matches Sept. 15-16.
“There isn’t anyone on this team who will be happy with anything less than gold,” Chynoweth said.
THE WHITEWATER CONNECTION
Of the 12 players on the 2008 U.S. Paralympic men’s wheelchair basketball team, eight are members of the UW-Whitewater wheelchair basketball team.
Coaches and players say the university has developed a reputation as the place to be for wheelchair basketball.
“We’re the Badgers of wheelchair basketball,” said Jeremy Lade, head coach of the UW-Whitewater team. “If you want to make the national team, we’re playing at a high level here.”
The university recruits top talent and develops players into skilled athletes capable of competing on the international stage.
Head coach Steve Wilson said having two-thirds of the team come out of UW-Whitewater has made for intense team unity. Not only are the players used to playing together, they’re able to train together more often than players based elsewhere.
WATCH THE GAMES
The 2008 Paralympic Games won’t be broadcast on network or cable television, but you can catch all the action on the Internet. Live feeds and video highlights are available at www.paralympicsport.tv or www.universalsports.com.
For more information, including a schedule of events, go to http://en.paralympic.beijing2008.cn.