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Wheelchair basketball athletes wow able-bodied players

Posted on: Oct 30, 2013 1:00:00 AM

Contact: Della Elliott (619) 644-7690

Eye-opening as it is exciting, the 16th annual Cuyamaca College Wheelchair Basketball Game on Wednesday delivered in its mission to showcase the athleticism of league-competition players, whose dedication to the sport is obvious, from the cost of the customized chairs to the hours they spend every week finessing the finer points of the game.

An event where members of the college’s men’s basketball team quickly learn they are at a disadvantage playing against some of the most seasoned wheelchair competitors in the county, the game provides a new awareness to students and others of what dedicated athletes with disabilities can accomplish.

“I totally respect the wheelchair athletes,” said Manuel Fernandez, who plays center for the Cuyamaca College Coyotes basketball team. “This is my second year playing in this game. It’s a real challenge.”

The five-on-five games feature a mix of Cuyamaca’s shooters playing alongside athletes who compete on local teams including the San Diego Hammers, a National Wheelchair Basketball Association member team. Several of the wheelchair athletes return year after year to play in the popular Cuyamaca event.

Mary Asher-Fitzpatrick, a learning disabilities specialist with Cuyamaca’s Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS), said the wheelchair athletes, most of whom suffered spinal cord injuries, never fail to wow spectators with the competitiveness of their play. DSPS, along with Cuyamaca College’s Associated Student Government, Athletics Department, Club ABLED and the Cuyamaca College Learning Resource Center, sponsored the game and the resource fair which preceded the competition.

The fair featured 10 community resource agencies serving people with disabilities.

College President Mark Zacovic said he looks forward to the game each year as an impressive, high-energy display of the exceptional skill on the part of the wheelchair athletes. He added that the exhibition game is part of the college’s outreach efforts and reflects its commitment to providing learning opportunities for everyone.

“Cuyamaca College does an exceptional job through DSPS assisting students with disabilities to pursue their education,” he said. “It is part of our culture here at the college to embrace the many diversities our students represent, including the community of the physically challenged. It’s in keeping with our mission to provide access to all.”

As novices shooting and traversing the court from an unfamiliar vantage point, the Cuyamaca basketball players faced a big challenge in just crossing the court in the lightweight chairs, specially designed for speed and maneuverability.

San Diego Hammer player Joaquin Leyva said the sports chairs, which start at about $3,000, have extra casters in the back to prevent tipping and are far more maneuverable than the typical wheelchair. Their acceleration and ability to turn on a dime reflects the advances in technology in their manufacturing.

But don’t expect to see them in use off the court – the very design features that make them ideal for court action render them too uncomfortable for everyday use. The sport chairs have users sitting with their legs closer to their chests and the backs are modified for improved shooting.

The teams for Cuyamaca’s game were mixed with players from both sides so that the wheelchair league athletes didn’t clean up the scoreboard with their precision shooting, said Asher-Fitzpatrick, who has coordinated the game from the beginning, along with Rob Wojkowski,Cuyamaca College men’s basketball coach.

Bilal Rahim, a forward for the Coyotes, said playing in the wheelchair was much harder than he expected.

“Just getting up and down the court was tough,” he said. “I’m glad I had the experience today, though.”

wheelchair basketball players on court
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