Today wheelchair basketball is a sport that is played by people with varying physical disabilities, however in its early days it was created to aid rehabilitation of those with spinal cord injuries. To this day a high percentage of wheelchair basketball players playing across the globe have spinal cord injuries.

World Spinal Cord Injury Day, an initiative by The International Spinal Cord Society (ISCoS), takes place on 5 September every year with the aim to increase awareness throughout the community.

To highlight this global day, which also promotes disability inclusion throughout the world, Vanessa Erskine, a member of the USA’s Gold medal winning team at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, took the time to answer some questions on how wheelchair basketball has impacted her life since an accident resulted in a spinal cord injury for her 8 years ago and any advice she has for others who maybe going through similar experiences.

Where do you currently play wheelchair basketball? 

I currently play in Germany in the first division (RBBL) for Hannover United.

How long have you been playing wheelchair basketball and what age did you start playing?

I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for around 8 years now. I started playing at the age of 17, about 8 months after being injured (aged 16).

How did your spinal cord injury occur?

My spinal cord injury occurred by being thrown into the air by a bull and then being rolled around and having my back stepped on once I had landed on the ground. I was a little bit out of my weight class.

How did you find out about wheelchair basketball and what motivated you to start playing? 

I first heard about wheelchair basketball through a neighbor who worked in the same school district as a teacher who taught the local junior wheelchair basketball team. At first, I couldn’t even get the basketball to the bottom of the net, let alone push from one baseline to the other without being exhausted. Through the junior program I met Sarah Castle, who had just been to the London 2012 Paralympics with Team USA, she was a really big influence for me and motivated me to set goals to play wheelchair basketball in college and for the national team. My family is also continuously motivating me. My parents have traveled throughout the US as well as to other countries to watch me play, but even from the beginning, they would rebound for hours, even when I couldn’t get the ball to the net.

Vanessa (pictured front row – far right) as part of the USA Gold Medal winning team at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

How has wheelchair basketball and playing sport helped since your injury?

That’s such a hard question to answer without writing a book. Wheelchair basketball was my first “entry point” into the adaptive sports world. Because of wheelchair basketball I was able to meet and watch athletes from all over the world, with all kinds of different disabilities, participating in different sports.

Wheelchair basketball was kind of my form of outpatient physical therapy in the aspect that I noticed how other athletes were lifting weights and what their fitness programs were like and simply just how they lived their lives. From getting a wheelchair in and out of a car to going up and down stairs. In the beginning (after a spinal cord injury) everything is new, it’s like having a new body, and the world isn’t designed necessarily for wheelchair users, so I absorbed as much I could and learned as much as I could from others that I met through wheelchair basketball, not just to improve on the court, but also develop and learn life skills to be independent.

Now wheelchair basketball allows me to hopefully be that influence to others.

What has been your best memory so far from playing wheelchair basketball?

I have so many wonderful memories I think it’s really hard to choose just one. To me there are of course the highlight moments, like being on the USA gold medal team from the Rio 2016 Paralympics Games, but I think my favorite moments are those that aren’t noticed by the crowds or onlookers and are more of the “little things”. I personally love the moments that are what bond a team and create the success. Whether that’s 6:00am in the Tuesday morning chair skill practices, pushing around a lake in Argentina because the morning was beautiful and your coach decided to take training out of the gym, or the long bus rides. There are so many amazing memories I have from every team I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of.

What has been the most challenging obstacle you have had to overcome?

I think the most challenging obstacle in basketball is one that will never be overcome. The most challenging obstacle to me is that wheelchair basketball is always evolving. Athletes, equipment and style of play are always developing, and I think to be the best athlete you can be, you need to continue to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and not allow yourself to be ok with being put into a “box”. This doesn’t just take physical skills and development, but also growth mentally, and occasionally a bit of creativity.

I can’t think of the most challenging obstacle I’ve faced in “normal life”, but, usually a little bit of creativity can help accomplish almost anything.

What is your main goal for the future?

My next main goals for the future for basketball is to have hopefully another history making year with Hannover United as well as be back on the international stage for the next cycle leading into the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.

My goals for “life” are to finish my Masters in Sports Nutrition. My focus of study has been on Paralympic Athletes and I hope to use my education and knowledge to help advance the fitness and health of Paralympic and Adaptive athletes further. I also want to help create more available information and resources for people living with disabilities regarding fitness, nutrition and health.

What would your advice be to anyone who may have recently had a spinal cord injury?

My advice would be to keep trying new things. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes it can be terrifying, but you will never know if you love it or hate it until you try. Also, never be afraid to ask for ideas or advice from others, you never know what little “tricks” or ideas someone else could have to offer.

Final Thoughts

Everyone has bad days, disability or no disability. Surround yourself with people in your life that make the bad days a little less lousy and try to remember that a bad moment or a bad day doesn’t have to shape the following days.