Lion November 2013 : Page 22

Unbounded Spirit A gift of two wheelchairs sparks a renewed zest for life. by Anne Ford The Golden Eagles bond over basketball and shared hardships.

Unbounded Spirit

Anne Ford

A gift of two wheelchairs sparks a renewed zest for life.

It took only a few harrowing moments for the engine of Allen Champagne’s helicopter to sputter and stall as it flew over the Gulf of Mexico 12 years ago. It took only a few horrifying moments more for him to plunge with it into the unforgiving water below. But after he woke up in the hospital and learned that he’d be permanently confined to a wheelchair, time seemed to pause forever.

“Everything just seemed to have stopped in my life,” says Champagne, 39, a former high school athlete who lives in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and speaks with a smooth drawl. “I remember saying that if this was going to be life for me, I would rather not be here. As I ventured out of the hospital, I felt really different than everybody else—so weird being in this chair, and so helpless. Life didn’t seem to have much of a purpose.”

That began to change about a year after the accident, when he learned about a local wheelchair basketball team. Popularized as a means of rehabilitating injured soldiers after World War II, wheelchair basketball uses specially designed chairs that allow players to move quickly and deftly around the court, dribbling, passing, and shooting just like standing players would.

In wheelchair basketball, hoops are at the same height as they are in the regular, stand-up version, and the rules are only slightly modified. (Pushing one’s chair more than twice in a row while dribbling the ball, for example, counts as traveling.)

Like many people who’d never seen a wheelchair basketball game, Champagne showed up to his first practice not expecting a terribly competitive experience. He was quickly blown away by the players’ strength, speed and aggression. “It was definitely more intense than I could have ever thought it would be,” he laughs now.

Just as amazing as the athleticism on display was the obvious camaraderie among the players. “It was the first time I had ever seen so many people in wheelchairs,” Champagne says. “It was like a big support group.” After that point, he says, “Life became a lot more normal, a lot more functional.”

Unfortunately, wheelchair basketball is an expensive sport. The special wheelchairs it requires are pricey—and then there are the travel costs. “Most states have only one, maybe two teams in them,” Champagne points out. “So being able to compete takes a lot of traveling. Most of the time, when we have a competition, it’s in a tournament, where you play four or five games over a weekend. That’s why financing is one of the hardest things about keeping a team going.”

Fortunately, funding from the Lions of Mississippi and others has made it possible to add one more wheelchair basketball team to the nation’s roster: the TLC Southern Miss Golden Eagles of Long Beach, Mississippi.

The Golden Eagles are sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi’s Technology Learning Center, a community-based, university-directed nonprofit that works to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. The team quickly became a competitive powerhouse in the world of wheelchair basketball after it began in 2011.

More importantly, the Golden Eagles, for which Champagne is both player and assistant coach, offers its players the same chance he received: to remain in top physical shape while making social and emotional connections that have the potential to change their lives forever.

It all began with a catastrophic storm. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated the central Gulf Coast, killing nearly 2,000 people and resulting in more than $100 billion of damage. Among its victims was the Technology Learning Center (TLC), which was totally destroyed during the storm and its aftermath.

Nancy Ann Sherman, who is both a Biloxi Lions Club member and a TLC visual impairment consultant, quickly went to her club and asked for help. The result: a Lions Clubs International Foundation grant of nearly $100,000, administered by the Lions of Mississippi. The grant helped TLC replace vital equipment including two wheelchairs suitable for basketball.

“That’s how we started the program— all from those two chairs,” says Ashley- Nicole Ross Flowers, the coach of the Golden Eagles. An energetic 26-year-old, Flowers has been known to pick up a player and hoist him into the team van herself when the wheelchair lift isn’t working. Flowers works as an assistive technology and certified recreational therapist at TLC. The wheelchairs allowed her and other staff members to encourage TLC clients to try out the sport.

By 2011, local interest in wheelchair basketball had risen so high that Flowers obtained a grant from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services to fund an entire team’s worth of wheelchairs, jerseys, and other equipment. That’s when the Golden Eagles were officially born.

Among the players to join was Blake Loftin, 24, who attends college in Mobile, Alabama. Loftin lost the use of his legs in a boating accident at age 13. The accident did not dim his competitive spirit. He relishes the sport’s cut-throat competitiveness. The sport has become part of his identity, and he’s training hard for the 2016 Summer Paralympics.

“Most people think that it’s a feel-good thing, that we’re just rolling around,” Loftin says. “It blows their minds when they see top-notch players going at each other, moving at 15, 20 miles an hour and scoring 80, 90 points a game.”

Thanks to that kind of intensity, the Golden Eagles won the Division III National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Gulf Coast Conference Championship in 2012—just one year after the team was founded. Not only that, but “that was actually the first time that the whole team had come together to play,” Loftin says. “I believe we beat our opponents pretty handily by about 20 points.”

The team went on to win the Capitol City Classic tournament last year in Jackson, Mississippi. It quickly became one of top 24 teams of the NWBA’s Division III and then won second place in the 2013 Gulf Coast Conference Championship in Biloxi. Last April, they played in their first national competition, the NWBA Division III National Tournament, and came home with the fifth-place trophy.

Yet Flowers enthusiastically attests that the team benefits players in ways that have nothing to do with a scoreboard. “I have one player who had almost committed suicide,” she says. “His therapist told him about our program, and he went from being suicidal to being someone who wants to play, wants to live, wants to be competitive again. He got his life back together. He felt like he could be somebody. His whole life just changed right in front of me.”

How is such powerful change possible? For one thing, playing wheelchair basketball requires that players stay in top-notch physical condition. “To see a person shoot a three-pointer from a chair—the whole stadium goes berserk because it takes so much upper body strength,” Flowers says. “Try sitting in a chair sometime and shooting. It’s very intense.”

Champagne agrees. “You push more in one game of wheelchair basketball than you push in a week of regular day-to-day life,” he says. “And it’s a whole different way of pushing. You’re pushing harder and faster, and there’s more contact.” When a player devotes that much time and effort to maintaining physical health, mental health is bound to follow.

Then, too, being around other people who experience the same mobility limitations helps foster a sense of community and connection. “It gets them to see that they’re not the only people going through this,” says Flowers. “It helps them feel as if they’re in their element.”

And then there’s the many practical tips for life in a wheelchair that the players inevitably end up sharing with one another. “If you haven’t been injured long and haven’t figured out a whole lot of things yet, it helps to have this group of people who have been through it and can pass on advice on how to do things better,” Champagne says. “A lot of times [at practices] you’ll see people off to the side, talking about different things. They help you realize that there’s still a way to do things. You just have to figure it out.”

Loftin, for instance, was taught by previous wheelchair basketball teammates how to go up and down an escalator (by using his upper-body strength to support both himself and his chair), how to get his chair to fit to his body so that he could get through narrow doorways and how to sit at a desk without having his chair accidentally roll away from it.

“I’ve learned so much besides basketball from guys that have been in chairs longer than me,” he says. He tries now to do the same for others. “It stinks that bad things happen to people, but if I hear of an athletic person getting hurt, I immediately go into recruiting mode. You get them on the team, and you get to teach them little things about how to move your wheelchair. It helps them; it helps me. It’s making a good situation out of something that’s less than ideal.”

Champagne does his share of recruiting and mentoring, too. “You definitely see that person, who, given time, almost blossoms into someone different,” he says. “A lot of times, when you first meet them, they’re almost like a clam—just real quiet and not sure of themselves. As they get more comfortable as a player, as a person, you can see their attitude change. You can see who they were before they were injured come out. It’s not all due to basketball. But I do believe that basketball makes a big difference.”

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