About the UA Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team:
- Founded during the 2000-2001 year
- Went from playing about 11 games annually to, now, up to 30 games in a regular season
- The team holds practice sessions four days each week at the UA Student Recreation Center with additional strength and conditioning training at the Disability Resource Center's adaptive athletic gym
- Captured first place in the 2012 National Wheelchair Basketball Association National Championship
- The team will compete in tournaments in Arizona, California, Alabama, Illinois and Wisconsin
- The UA team is part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), an association of more than 200 basketball teams in 22 conferences and seven divisions
- The UA disabled athletics program, offered through the Disability Resource Center, is the largest in the country
In the past, Wildcats have persistently earned a chance to compete in Paralympic Games. For recent related news, read:
The University of Arizona has strong representation on the USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team, which will compete nationally and internationally and vie for a spot in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.
Of the 16-member team, which is being led by Paralympic gold medalist Stephanie Wheeler of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, five are affiliated with the UA's Adaptive Athletics Women's Basketball Team.
UA affiliates on the national team are:
- Molly Bloom, a graduate student majoring in linguistic anthropology
- Courtney Ryan, an undergraduate in the College of Education
- Paralympian Jennifer Poist, who is pursuing a doctorate in the College of Pharmacy
- Deanna Free, who is taking a semester off from Pima Community College and trains at the UA
Also, UA alumna Kaitlyn Verfuerth, who earned a psychology degree, made the national team roster, but is not currently training at the UA. Verfuerth is a Paralympian wheelchair tennis player and a top ranking basketball player in the U.S.
"Making the team indicates that you are one of the very, very few individuals who are at the top in the U.S. We're so excited," said head coach Pete Hughes, who has led the team since 2004 and has trained athletes who have gone on to compete in the Paralympics in the past.
"They are getting a great opportunity, and it's just a great honor. They'll be playing against the best in the world," Hughes said. "There is a sense of pride that the hard work has paid off."
Access to superior facilities and an expansive suite of equipmente has helped elevate the status of the basketball program. Team members also credit the University's financial and academic support, the collegiality among team members and the direction of coach Hughes for the program's succes.
Bloom, a lifelong swimmer who would have a hemi-pelvectomy, a pelvic amputation, after a 2006 vehicle accident, took an interest in basketball while living in Denver.
She began playing in 2007 with a community team and eventually decided to pursue studies at the UA, well aware of the competitive nature of the women's team and the resources available to student-athletes.
"I started playing basketball with women who have played a lot of international basketball, so it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to play at an international level," Bloom said.
She was able to move in that direction after enrolling at the UA.
"We all strive for that level of competition and we train a lot because we want to get better and help our team develop," Bloom said.
"It's a huge honor to be selected to play for the national team, and it also feels great to be able to reach a goal that I set out for myself that is so big," she said. "I thank the people I am involved with and who help me to train – my coach and the Disability Resource Center – and I thank the University of Arizona for giving me a scholarship."
Hughes said he leads the team through three strict goals: Education is first, support of the team is key and earning titles and gaining elite status holds up as the final charge.
"You need that education. That's first," Hughes said.
Bloom, who is working toward becoming a research professor, is focusing her studies on language use among individuals with disabilities. Eventually, she would like to inform the ways in which language is powerful in shaping identity, specifically around ability and disability.
Teammate Ryan, who is studying special education, aspires to help newly injured individuals navigate medical, public and recreational systems.
Poist, who is in the PharmD program at the UA, intends to establish a focus in geriatrics and would like to eventually work with hospital patients after earning her degree.
In addition to a strict focus on academics, Hughes also emphasizes intense performance. But that is not too difficult as the team members rarely struggle making it to 6 a.m. practices and being committed to competing, he said.
"They know they have to train like champions," Hughes said. "They're not comfortable with just making the team. They want to compete in the Paralympics, and it is their goal to win a medal for the team."
Ryan, previously a women's soccer player at Metropolitan State University of Denver, sustained a spinal cord injury in 2010, resulting in her becoming partially paralyzed.
"Following my injury, I felt that my life as an elite athlete was in the past," said Ryan, who eventually opted to train in wheelchair basketball.
"What she has done is really remarkable," Hughes said. "I don't like to tell my players that they are remarkable, but from not playing to making it all the way up to the USA team is really remarkable."
Ryan had been competing in Phoenix with her San Diego team when Hughes, who had also been in the city for a match, saw her play. Eventually, she would transfer to the UA, having been recruited by Hughes.
"I compete because of a desire to be the best I can be. I have fallen in love with basketball because I can be part of a team that is working towards the same goal," said Ryan, the youngest team member.
"Wheelchair basketball and selection to the national team have reminded me that 'once an athlete, always an athlete;' that I can make a difference in a sport and be a role model to others, whether I am running or rolling."