No Limits- A Wheelchair Basketball Dream for Malat Wei

Many young people have sports dreams. It may be to run the 100-meter dash in the Paralympic Games or to win a wheelchair rugby championship. Few have dreams like Malat Wei, and even fewer work tirelessly for years to see their dreams come true. However, Malat is no ordinary dreamer or average athlete. As a result, he has achieved what some once thought impossible. He brought the game he loves, wheelchair basketball, to the people of the country that he loves, South Sudan.

Malat Wei during his first trip back to South Sudan. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Malat, who was born in the war-torn country of South Sudan, lost the use of his lower limbs due to polio at the age of three. He lived for years with his family in refugee camps before coming to the United States where he was outfitted with his first wheelchair and later exposed to adaptive sports. Through wheelchair basketball, Malat found confidence and strength that has empowered him to graduate from high school and become a premier player of the game. The transformative powers of sport led Malat to believe that if he could return to his home country he could share all that he has learned to help other individuals with disabilities to redefine how they see themselves and shift the perspective of community members on the value of people with disabilities.

Malat and Jess enjoying the game that transformed their lives. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Jess Markt, a former wheelchair basketball player and current Diversity, Inclusion, and Sports Advisor for the  International Committee Red Cross (ICRC), also has a similar belief in the power of adaptive sports, due to a life-changing spinal cord injury and the introduction to wheelchair basketball during his rehabilitation process. In his role at ICRC, Jess has started numerous adaptive sports programs in countries caught in conflict. As a result, Jess visited South Sudan in 2017 and introduced the sport of wheelchair basketball in Juba.

When Malat saw a video on social media of the work that Jess was doing in his home country, he reached out to him. Jess understood Malat’s desire to become involved in the project and immediately saw the value in bringing Malat to South Sudan. Hence, he started advocating for him to join on the next trip as an assistant coach.

Malat demonstrating wheelchair basketball skills to new players. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In 2018, for the first time since leaving South Sudan as a young boy, Malat returned home. Now, strong, educated, and empowered, Malat shared his passion for the game, belief in the power of adaptive sports, and hope for improved conditions for all people with disabilities. The pair spent their days teaching drills, wheelchair techniques, and the rules of the game. They also worked off the court to foster inter-tribal relationships and shift perspectives about the potential of people with disabilities by leveraging what was occurring on the court.

South Sudan wheelchair basketball players united through sport. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

The play taking place was a fulfillment of their dreams and a testament to all that they have overcome. It is also the true embodiment of the vision that the founder of the Paralympic Games, Dr. Ludwig Gutmann, had on the field of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948.

Players celebrating their successes on and off the court. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In conclusion, at a time when many dreams have been deferred and hope may be hiding, one only needs to speak with Malat and Jess for a short time to believe again that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. These two inspire one to dream big, dig deep, and to keep moving forward to achieve the Possible.

Be sure to check out the award-winning documentary No Limits: Wheelchair Basketball in South Sudan which features Malat and Jess on their incredible journey to change the world through the game of wheelchair basketball. 

Some Impressive Sports Story Stats

Through the ICRC, Jess has brought wheelchair basketball to 19 war-torn countries with plans to expand to a total of 28.

Jess and the ICRC have worked to provide over 1,000 wheelchairs constructed by Motivation, a UK based organization that builds wheelchairs specifically for users in developing countries.

In 2018, there was 1 female wheelchair basketball player in South Sudan. In 2019, there were 25 female players with plans to develop more programming across the country.

Nevertheless, she persisted…the first female wheelchair basketball player in the South Sudan program. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Catch Katie If You Can

Meet Katie Eddington, an 11-year-old who was born to run. If you are looking for Katie, you can find her running around her neighborhood or practicing with her local track team. Katie loves to move fast, really fast. She is so fast that she has set the national record for 8-11 year-olds in both the 100M and 200M at the Endeavor Games. However, her goals are loftier with her eyes on the Paralympic Games.

We caught up with Katie and her mom, Samantha, after their recent trip to Florida. It wasn’t a regular vacation in the middle of a pandemic. It was an important trip for Katie to get fitted for her new running blade. As a young and growing athlete, Katie needs to be fitted every 6 months for her running blade.

Katie’s mom also runs, but she doesn’t run to set records. Samantha runs to raise funds for the non-profit, 50 Legs, which provides prosthetic devices to individuals who have experienced leg or foot loss. Despite the Boston marathon being canceled for 2020, a major fundraising event for this mom from Kentucky, she has still raised over $18,000 for 50 Legs on her webpage. Knowing personally the importance of adaptive sports for youth, Samantha has a desire to raise even more stating, “That amount will be enough to get lots of kids running blades.”

Like her mom, Katie is trying to make a difference in the world for people with disabilities. With the goal of increasing the representation of people with exceptionalities in the media, Katie is a model for Athleta Girl. It was a photo of her running in a recent catalog that led us to pursue her sports story. Despite COVID-19, you will see Katie donning Athleta’s newest fall gear soon via photos and videos from home.

My daughter, Caitlin, who drafted the questions for our interview and co-authored this post wants to be sure you know one more very cool thing about this strong and fierce athlete. During her trip to Florida, Katie recently got a tattoo. Well, to be more accurate, her plastic molded foot on her every day prosthetic leg got a tattoo. There are advantages to being an amputee.

So you can catch Katie on the pages of an Athleta catalog, but don’t try to catch her on the track because she will leave you behind. Keep running, Katie! Keep believing in the Possible!

Fun Side Note: When I saw Katie’s photo in the Athleta catalog, I was inspired to write the post, Representation Matters. Fortunate for us, Samantha came across the post and reached out to Team Possible. Now, we get to share her sports story and watch her achieve her dreams.

Representation Matters

Being a professor of education for over a decade, I have read lots of children’s books. Over the past five years, I have focused my reading on children’s books representing people with disabilities, and you might be shocked at what I found or maybe not…

  1. You can find many picture books about disabilities, but few picture books where the main character has an exceptionality.
  2. You can find the sports stories of athletes who play traditional sports, but you cannot find picture books about athletes who play adaptive sports. 
  3. You can find lots of pirate picture books featuring amputees holding weapons or bottles, but you cannot find books about going back to school that include children with limb differences. 
Pirate Pete by Kim Kennedy

When I reflect on what I can and cannot find for young readers, I wonder what messages they are getting from the books that do and do not appear on our shelves. Are these the messages we intended?

  1. You can talk about disabilities, but you can’t talk with people who have exceptionalities.
  2. You can hear the sports stories of traditional athletes, but the triumph of athletes who play adaptive sports are not as valuable. 
  3. You can read about amputees as villains, but they shouldn’t be included in your classroom.

Fortunately, there is a growing representation of people with exceptionalities in the media. You can see a young boy in a wheelchair on a poster at Target. In my Athleta catalog, a young girl who is an amputee is running across the page. So now, I simply wonder when children’s literature will catch up and include everyone on the shelf. 

Oliver Garza Pena gets that representation matters. Photo Credit: Ollie’s World Facebook Page

Until then, I will blog, teach, and present the sports stories of athletes who redefine ability and believe in the possible because I know representation matters. Don’t believe me. After a group of third graders, heard my son, Ian, and I share the sports story of wheelchair rugby champion, Nick Springer, and they asked to write him letters.

Nick Springer, two-time wheelchair rugby Paralympian. Photo Credit: Christopher Griffith for Vanity Fair

Dear Nick,

“You showed me that anything is possible. You showed me that there are no limits to what I can do.” -Sierra

“I think you are brave and I know you are strong.” -Olivia

“Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do and what you can.” -Emerson

“Everyone loved how you persevered.” -Grace

“I think you are brave like a superhero. I like the way you do wheelchair rugby.” -Ahmed

“I bet you liked crashing, slamming, banging, and helping your team. I think it would be fun to play wheelchair rugby.” -Logan

“It felt good telling your story to the class. I was proud of you and Mom and me. It also felt good to talk about someone else who has a disability like me. The best part was doing it with Mom. Love, Ian”

I told you REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

Ian representing his story at Shriner’s Hospital. Photo Credit: Shriner’s Hospital

Athletes Roll in Power Soccer

With the excitement of the Women’s World Cup, I wanted to share another story about soccer that may be new to some of our Team Possible readers. It is about the game of Power Soccer and the organization, Athletes Roll. Before I share the interview with player, Anthony Jennings, check out this amazing Power Soccer play from GoPro!

Awesome, right!?! I know. It was plays like this one and the high level of accessibility for players of all abilities that made me want to learn more about the game.

Here are six Power Soccer basics about the game from Anthony:

  1. It is like the traditional game of soccer with corner kicks and goal kicks.
  2. Four players total on a side including the goalie during a game.
  3. There are two 20 minutes halves with the referee keeping time.
  4. The ball is bigger than a typical soccer ball. It is 13 in diameters and it is less bouncy.
  5. The game is played on a flat surface like a basketball court.
  6. Players kick the ball by driving straight into it or spin and kick. (My favorite kick is the 360 spin kick, but the ¼ turn spin kick is more common.)
Intense Play in Power Soccer
Photo Courtesy of Athletes Roll

Now, Anthony warns Power Soccer is highly competitive with national and international levels. He also emphasized the importance of players being in the right place at the right time. To get there, players use control devices to drive with foot, chin, head, or sip and puff. The chairs can’t go faster than 6.2 mph and they are checked before every game. With players of all abilities, Anthony explained that there is a solution for any challenge an athlete may have. For example, if a player is unable to speak or is hearing impaired, teams use microphone and voice amplification or signaling devices to communicate during play.

Anthony believes anyone can be a great Power Soccer player. He states that if you have the desire, put in the time, and practice, anything is possible. Here is what Anthony wants readers to know about Power Soccer:

  1. It’s a real sport.
  2. It’s competitive.
  3. Players are real athletes.
  4. It takes a long time to develop the skills to become a great player.
  5. It takes a high level of dedication to play Power Soccer.

If you would like to learn more about Power Soccer, you can follow Anthony’s organization, Athletes Roll. If you are an interested athlete or know of one and would like to know how to get started in the sport, please contact Anthony at contact@athletesroll.com. If you want to support Power Soccer in New England, follow Athletes Roll on social media, spread the word and buy one of their cool t-shirts.

Cool Gear from Athletes Roll
Photo Courtesy of Athletes Roll

Keep rolling and believing in the possible!

Jen

Marcus Kadinger Makes His Hoop Dreams a Reality

Playing ball at the college level was always a dream for Marcus Kadinger, but he didn’t think it was possible. During his junior of high school basketball, everything started to shift. With determination and lots of hard work, Marcus received honorable mention to All-Conference. It was then that playing at the college level started to become a reality for Marcus. With the continuous support of his parents and coaches who believed in him, Marcus started to dream big. This month, Marcus Kadinger just completed his senior year playing basketball for Marian University in Wisconsin. Here is his sports story about making his hoop dreams a reality…

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Marcus Kadinger playing for Marian University. Photo Credit: Marian University Athletics

What steps helped you achieve your dream of playing college basketball?

I was never a star player, but coaches told me I was a special kind of player. I was a team guy first. At a clinic, one coach encouraged me by telling me that I was one of the hardest players on the court. He noticed that I would put in the extra effort to get the rebound, or make the pass, or to defend the ball. He said, “You play hard every single second.”

Being a one-handed player, what adaptations or modifications did you need to make to develop your game?

When I was younger, I was uncomfortable using my left side. I learned to use a quick first step to get around the defender. My jump shot developed naturally, and slowly I became more confident. Eventually, I learned one or two quick moves on my left side, which the defenders were not expecting and then a spin move. I just had to play smarter.

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Marcus taking a quick first step to get by a defender. Photo Credit: Leader Telegram

What challenges did you face during your basketball career?

I was always my own worst critic. Sometimes, I had confidence issues which made meeting new people hard. I had to learn to embrace my differences and not let them alienate me from people. Being an amputee, it’s just… I didn’t ever meet anyone like me.

Who has inspired you along your sports journey?

My dad. My parents have been very influential. They were always encouraging me.

When I was younger Coach Booth made a big impact on me. He taught me that life is bigger than basketball. He would ask me, “What are you doing to be a good person?” He always included everyone on the team. Everyone had a role.

I have a one-handed basketball player in my house. What advice do you have for my son, Ian?

I went to a lot of camps. You have to learn to move with the ball, to dribble in and out, and you have to push yourself to train like everyone else. You have to try to dribble on both sides, even for just one or two moments. The more you try it, the more confident you become. I really didn’t start dribbling on my left side in a game until middle school. I wished I had tried sooner.

What are your post-college dreams for yourself?

I am graduating this year as a psychology major. Eventually, I would like to work at Shriner’s Hospitals for Children and counsel children who are amputees like me. Of course, I will always want basketball in my life. So, I hope to continue to work at summer camps, coach summer league, and someday coach at the high school level.

What advice do you have for parents and coaches of athletes with limb differences?

You need to let kids figure it out on their own. Let them do it their way. Be there for them and keep encouraging them to keep trying. They will always find a way.

How would you define ability?

Ability is your desire to act on your God-given gifts. We all have unique gifts.  It is just up to us to pursue them.

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Marcus demonstrating his ability and grit. Photo Credit: Leader Telegram

How would you define grit?

Grit is mental toughness. It is getting through adverse situations and keeping your head held high.

Marcus is an impressive student-athlete who plans to make a difference in this world by working with young people. In our house, we have already benefited from Marcus’ positive attitude and encouragement. After seeing videos of Marcus play basketball and hearing that Marcus was encouraging Ian to dribble with his left side, he gave it a try. First in practice, and then in his last basketball, Ian dribbled twice with his “little hand” while bringing the ball down the court. Thank you, Marcus, for being a role model and sharing your sports story! Keep believing in the Possible!

Learn more about Marcus’s story from his parents’ perspective here.

Sam Kuhnert from NubAbility

I am so excited to introduce you to Sam Kuhnert, Founder of NubAbility Athletics Foundation, an organization where children with limb differences receive training in mainstream sports from coaches with limb differences.

Sam Kunhert playing baseball with NubAbility campers Photo Credit: NubAbility.org

Sam Kuhnert is an ambitious young man, who in his senior year of high school had a vision for NubAbility. As a result, he spent his senior year, researching and using social media to connect with and gather a group of role models for young athletes. A year later, in 2012 NubAbility hosted their first camp with 19 youth at Greensville University. Sams reflects on that moment and states, “I knew then that this is what I am supposed to do with my life.”

Nearly seven years later, NubAbility has served 650 young athletes in various sports camps and clinics. This past summer Sam hosted 175 campers from 43 states and 3 countries. His work is making an impact nationally for people with limb differences. When speaking about the camp, Sam made it clear, “This is not a support group. We are teaching kids how to get up and reach their fullest potential. We want them to reach further than they ever imagined, more than they could have dreamed.”

Sam and the NubAbility Coaches teach campers to persist and work hard to reach their goals in three important ways:

  1. NubAbility Coaches teach athletes to block out the doubters and to listen to their inner voice saying, “You can do it!”
  2. NubAbility Coaches teach campers to embrace failure. They know that when we fail, we learn.
  3. NubAblity Coaches teach athletes that they need to be willing to put in the time and effort to succeed.

What does Sam hope athletes with limb differences gain from participating in Nubability camps?

I want them to know that everybody was created perfectly and that they can handle anything. I want kids out of the stands and into the game. There are a lot of life lessons that can be learned through sport.

What are Sam’s dreams for his organization and its athletes?

My ultimate goal is to see NubAbility worldwide. I want to offer clinics across the globe because, in other countries, people born with limb differences or amputees are seen as cursed. They are cast off and kept out of the public. Sport can change the way people are seen.

LISTEN UP: What advice does Sam have for parents and coaches of athletes with limb differences?

Don’t ever let them use their limb difference as an excuse. It becomes addicting. Push them to keep going even during times of adversity. Never let them know when you doubt them. And remember, it’s okay to let them fail because they will fail in their lives. It’s how we grow and get better.

How does Sam define ability?

Ability is the opposite of disability. It is being able to…Every person has the ability to do anything. If they have the will, they can do it. You’ve got to have grit.

What’s grit according to Sam?

Grit is being able to push through when people tell you that it’s too hard or you can’t do something. Grit is when you keep climbing no matter how high or how many times you might slip and go back to the bottom. You keep going. You keep pushing. You keep driving. You will make it to the top.

Who inspires Sam?

Jim Abbott. At 2-3 years old, I would sit on my dad’s lap and watch videos of Jim pitching in the major league. I would see how he owned his difference and how he wasn’t afraid of anyone. I saw how he used his platform for good and he owned who he was. I wanted to be like him.

Jim batting for the Angels. Photo Credit: Jim Abbott.net

After speaking with Sam, I knew that I had just met someone who believes in the limitless potential of every individual and who is making a difference in this world for young people. Of course, I also loved that we both admire Jim Abbott for his ability to play baseball and use his platform for good.

Sam Kuhnert, Founder of NubAbility Photo Credit: NubAbility.org

If you are impressed with Sam and he has you motived to reach your greatest potential, please contact him. He is available for speaking events. Just check out Keynote for a Cause on the NubAbility website.

To Sam and all the Nubablitiy Coaches, thank you for all of your great work and believing in the Possible!  -Jen

Riding the Waves with AmpSurf

We heard about AmpSurf from a neighbor the summer before Ian joined our family. When she told me about their offerings, I couldn’t help but think that it was a little bit of fate. You see, AmpSurf is a non-profit organization that offers free adaptive surfing clinics to amputees on both the east and west coasts of the US, and they host one in Maine where we love to spend the summer months.

During a snowy January day, I registered for the August clinic hoping he would come to love the cold waters of Maine. Eight months later, after learning to swim and armed with a cozy black wetsuit, Ian was eager to try out a sport that his big sister loves.

The morning started with a warm welcome and an announcement that the best surfer on the beach is the one with the biggest smile. Caitlin leaned over to me and whispered, “I think that will be Ian.” The announcements were then followed by some dry land instruction on a wobble board and safety tips.  Then, in heats, each surfer clad in a brightly colored AmpSurf shirt hit the waves with their team. A team consisted of one surf instructor and four water volunteers who guided participants on their ride into the beach.

Ian was in the green heat and his instructor was Steve. He told us he was determined to stand up, and on his first wave, he DID. In fact, on every wave, he popped up and got into his best surfing stance. He did have one big wipe out, but a volunteer was right there and scooped him out of the water quickly. Then, in full Ian fashion, he stood up proudly and with a huge smile on his faced waved to us.

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Ian catching his first wave with AmpSurf with the help of Steve and his team of volunteers. Photo Credit: Proud Mom

As Caitlin, Nolan, and I watched Ian surf from the shoreline, we jumped, shouted, and cheered for him. There were even a few proud Momma tears. I just couldn’t believe how far my little boy had come! One volunteer working with Ian ran up and said to us, “I am not sure who had more joy on their face, Ian or all of you. This is just so beautiful!”

And it was beautiful, all of it. Even Ian agreed. On the car ride home, when I asked him what he thought of the AmpSurf clinic, he said, “Mom, it was beautiful.”

Surprised by his response, I asked, “Why? What made it beautiful?”

“It was so beautiful to see all of those people surfing. Some had one leg. Some were missing two legs, but everyone got to surf. Everyone got to have fun.”

Thank you AmpSurf for providing Ian, our family, and all of the participants with an incredible morning! We are already looking forward to next year!

If you are interested in learning more about AmpSurf, donating, or volunteering, please contact them at surf@ampsurf.org.

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Ian waiting for his turn with Caitlin and Nolan as the blue heat heads out into the waves. Photo Credit: Mom