Citizens With Disabilities - Ontario
"TOGETHER WE ARE STRONGER"

         



Former Canadian Women's Star Thomas Finding Success In The Wheelchair Game

Lori Ewing, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Monday February 25th, 2008

TORONTO - Misty Thomas has felt the swell of pride from marching in the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games, and has stood upon the medal podium at the world championships.

But the Canadian basketball veteran says there was nothing quite like the thrill she got when she was finally able to keep up with the play in her wheelchair.

When Thomas takes the court this summer in Beijing, she'll become the first player in the world to have competed in both the Olympics and Paralympics in basketball.

"The first time I caught up to the play - because normally by the time I would get down the court, everybody was already turned around and going the other way - that was a big moment," Thomas says. "I was like 'Hey look everybody, I'm actually part of what's going on here.' I basically played between the three-point lines for the first few months."

The 43-year-old Thomas starred in standup basketball, leading the national women's team to a bronze at the 1986 world championships and a fourth-place finish at the 1984 Atlanta Olympics in some of Canada's finest years in the sport.

She played college ball at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and has since had her No. 4 jersey retired.

But Thomas was forced to the sidelines after reconstructive knee surgery when she was just 25, and surely some of her best years still lay ahead.

Nearly two decades later, they still may.

"The Olympics were fantastic, when your dreams come true," Thomas says. "We won bronze at the world championships and were among the best in the world for a long period of time. I played with some awesome players and against some really great players.

"Sure I definitely was thinking (my career) was going to last longer than that. . . now I get this sort of second chance."

The Vancouver native, who at 34 was the youngest individual inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, was recruited to play the wheelchair game by some friends, but envisioned playing only at the club level.

In Canada, able-bodied players are permitted at the club level, but they can't play international ball. But when her coach Tim Frick with her B.C. Breakers club team saw the sizable scars on her knee, he figured she wasn't all that able-bodied after all.

She packaged up her medical records and sent them off to an international medical commission, who deemed her minimally disabled.

"It was a weird time period," Thomas says of the six-month wait. "Part of me was thinking, 'I'm really excited for them to say 'you actually have a disability,' and thinking wow, maybe I could play for Canada. But part of me was like, 'jeez, I didn't realize I was that wrecked.'

"And then you get this letter, congratulations you're disabled, and off you go."

For a player who once moved so fluidly around the court, learning to play the game from a wheelchair hasn't been easy.

"Right from the beginning from the very first practice, it was so challenging," says the former UBC women's coach. "Now you have this piece of equipment that is a major part of movement, and you have to get around while mastering this piece of equipment.

"The people who have been using chairs for years. . . you should see how quick they can move and the things that they can do, the way they move and tilt . . . I have a lot of catching up to do."

Knocking down her first three-point shot from the chair, aiming at a basket that looked about as big as a tea cup, was another big highlight.

"If I had to play standup again, I would practise shooting from a chair," Thomas says. "Shooting a three-point shot from standing is so easy now, the basket looks like it's a foot away."

The challenges have been worth it.

"I really missed being on the basketball court," she says. "When I stopped playing standup, I missed playing the types of sports that involve hard cutting that knee injuries prevent you from doing . . . basketball, soccer, field hockey. You golf or you swim. But golf just doesn't cut it for me. I really missed the kind of competitive atmosphere an interactive sport provides."

Wheelchair basketball uses a scale of physical capabilities. Thomas is at the highest end of the scale at 4.5. An athlete with a high spinal cord injury would be ranked a 1. To keep the game balanced, teams can't have more than 14 points on the floor at once.

"One of the things I really marvel at is that it's a completely integrated sport," Thomas says. "Fully able-bodied people can participate domestically on the same floor as someone who is quadriplegic, and everybody is competing and is important for the success of the team. I don't know of any other sport that has that kind of integration."

Thomas has already found success in the wheelchair game. When she helped Canada win gold at the 2006 world wheelchair championships, she became the first player ever to medal at the worlds in both the standup and wheelchair game.

Canada is the favourite to win gold at the Paralympics in Beijing, and Thomas says the thrill of being there will be no less than it was nearly 25 years ago when she marched into the stadium in Los Angeles.

"Putting on a Canada uniform is the greatest thrill that you can have as an athlete," she says. "It wouldn't matter what sport I was competing at, it would be so."

Reproduced from http://www.canadaeast.com/sports/article/222496

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