Mackenzie Soldan: From Grit to Gold

Mackenzie Soldan has a long list of accomplishments for 2016. Completing her MBA at the University of Alabama, winning a gold medal with the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball in Rio and visiting White House are only three items that top the list. I was fortunate to catch up with Mackenzie as she took some time to reflect on her sports journey.

What moment from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio will stick with you? The moment before we got our gold medal. When I was pushing out to the podium with all of my teammates. I realized then that I had achieved my dream, and all of my family and old coaches were there to see it. All the people who had contributed to getting me to that moment were there.

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                 Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball with their gold medals in Rio.                                Photo Courtesy of Mackenzie Soldan

What makes the Paralympic Games a unique sporting event? The Paralympics are unique because it brings so many athletes from different cultures together that wouldn’t meet except through sports. It also demonstrates the progress of disabled sports and helps to continue the movement forward.

What was your grittiest moment of the Games? As a team, we had a moment in the semi-finals where we played the home team. In the locker room the coaches let us have it. The whole team was down because we hadn’t play to our expectations. At our next practice, we pushed through it. We realized that one moment or one game was not going to ruin this for us. We decided to forget it and go with what we knew. We did just that and ended up with a great final game.

Who was an athlete at the Paralympic Games that embodied grit for you? His name is

Ahmed Shafik Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Ahmed Shafik. He was born in Iraq and contracted polio as a baby. After the Iraqi team had a poor performance at the Games, he was jailed for a year and beaten badly. He decided to leave the country and arrived in the US as a refugee. He then joined the US Army as a translator and served a tour in Iraq for three years. When he came back he returned to powerlifting and was the only American powerlifter at the Games in Rio. I think that story perfectly displays having grit. He was in a tough situation, and against all odds, he made his way through it. The way that happens is by making one decision. I think you can usually trace back someone’s success to one moment where the person consciously decides to either make a change or do nothing. Ahmed made the decision to make a change in a harder situation than most of us will ever encounter.

 

What do you hope people gained from watching the Paralympic Games? I hope people realized that the Games are a high level of competitive sports and they became fans. I hope they watched and became inspired by athletes who were following their dreams. I also hope that the Games humanized people with disabilities. And finally, I hope that people learned not to fear disabilities, but to simply see them as a part of an athlete’s life. Disabilities don’t make a person greater or lesser.

What’s next for you? Everyone has been asking me that question. I’m not sure. It’s hard. For four years you have a plan. Right now, I am going to take a break and think about starting my career.

No matter her decision, Mackenzie’s future is bright because we know she will always choose grit. Thanks, Mackenzie for being awesome and representing Team USA!

If you want to learn more about Mackenzie you can check out her  NWBA Athlete of the Week interview.

Mackenzie Soldan: Wheelchair Tennis and Basketball Champion

Mackenzie Soldan is a fierce competitor. Her athletic abilities have led her to gold medals on the tennis and basketball courts. In the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Mackenzie was on the USA Wheelchair Tennis Team. Now, she has her eyes set on the 2016 Rio Paralymics and being a part of the women’s wheelchair basketball team. Here is her awesome sports story…

MacKenzie Tennis pbs.org

Mackenzie winning the gold in tennis. Photo Credit: PBS Video

Name: Mackenzie Soldan

Hometown: Hemlock, Michigan 

What sport or sports do you play? I play wheelchair tennis and basketball.

Team USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? The most recent one was in Toronto with the US Women’s Basketball Team, and we won the gold at the 2015 Parapan Games. It was cool being a part of a team and having worked toward that goal for the past three years. Another accomplishment I am proud of was in the 2011 ParaPan Games when I won two golds for tennis. I wasn’t even supposed to go, which made it even more amazing. One of the players had to drop out last minute, and I got a call to play. At the time, I wasn’t even playing tennis because I was focusing on basketball. When I first got there, I was playing terribly. Then, somehow I ended up working through it. Each match was less ugly than the one before.

Mackenzie Tennis Medal usta.com

On the podium. Photo Credit: USTA

How did you pull through to win the gold? I think it was my competitive drive. I just don’t like losing at all. Even though, I was not in the best tennis shape that I could have been in, I have very high expectations for myself and it pushed me past any excuses I could have made.  Then, I just took it point by point.

Mackenzie BBall Team Spirit twitter.com

Team USA rallying to win the gold at 2015 Parapan Games. Photo Credit: Christian Academy

How does that competitiveness work when you are a team player? It is hard. In an individual sport like tennis, it allows for you to get frustrated with yourself because you are only letting yourself down. In basketball, you have your team.  So you have to have that competitive drive, but you can’t let your frustration take you away from your role on the team. You have four other players on the court working hard, and you can’t let them down. It is definitely a balance.

Mackenzie BBall TeamUSA.org

Pushing hard. Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

What is your sports story? My sports story is still continuing on right now. I’m just an average little girl that grew up in Michigan. My parents have guided me through this entire journey. Sports are simply something that I have always done and needed to do. They are a part of who I am. I do sports because they feel right.  I’m just going with what I think I am supposed to be doing.

What is your current workout schedule? I practice every day. I play tennis three times a week, and I play basketball every day. Plus, we lift weights three times a week with a schedule from the US strength and conditioning coach. That is my typically schedule, unless we are getting close to a competition. Then, we practice for about four hours each day. Note: Mackenzie is also a full-time graduate student at University of Alabama! Roll Tide.

God Has A Plan spiritualinspiration.tumblr.comWhat books inspire you? I’m not a huge reader because of my studies I don’t have a lot of time. But, the Bible is probably the one book that I have read and that has inspired me the most.  Passage Jeremiah 29:11 really sticks with me: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? One day at a time. It is easy to get overwhelmed if you look too far ahead. You need to focus on one moment and do the best you can in that moment. Then, you do the best you can in the next moment.

How would you define ability? I would say everyone has ability. Ability is taking what you have been given and using it to the fullest potential. There are no restrictions on anyone’s ability because there is always a way to adapt. It is just a matter of finding a way to do it.

Mackenzie Intense henriettkoosz.atHow would you define grit? Grit is a good word. I would say it is taking a situation and fighting your way through it. Sometimes you have to fight for a long time, and sometimes it’s for shorter periods of time. Grit is having a drive to achieve something you want and not letting anything stop you. Even if it takes beating down the same problem or obstacle again and again. To have grit you don’t have to be a tough person, it is just a choice that you can make for yourself.

What superpowers do you possess? This is the tough question. I don’t think I really have a superpower. I feel pretty average. I do have a real knack for picking winners of award shows, does that count? When in doubt, go with Meryl Streep. 

What advice do you have for other athletes? If you’re interested in doing a sport, just go out and try it. Then, you can see how you like it. If you like it, then you can take it to the next level. Sports are a great way to meet people. They also help you gain perspective and see what else is out there. They help you see what is possible. Sports are important for your self-confidence and finding out that you can do something independently. Any athletes who are just starting out should go for it. It is totally worth it!

Who would you like to thank? First, I want to thank my parents. When I was seven years old, my parents drove me two hours to a suburb of Detroit to try wheelchair basketball. I loved it. So, every week my parents would drive me two hours each way to practice for three years. I don’t think I would be here without them. I also want to thank my coaches from throughout the years. They have always pushed me to be better.

Learn more about Mackenzie’s story, and watch her win the gold in PBS Medal Quest.

Abby Dunkin: Wheelchair Basketball Champion and Texas Track Star

Abby Dunkin shooting for Team USA Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Abby Dunkin shooting for Team USA Photo Credit: TeamUSA.org

Abby Dunkin has proven herself on the track, and now she is working hard to prove herself on the court. This tough young woman keeps believing in her faith and herself to meet life’s challenges. Here’s her sports story…

What is your hometown? It is New Braunfels, Texas. 

What sports do you play? I focus on wheelchair basketball. I have competed in wheelchair track and shot put in the past.

What superpowers do you posses? Good Lord, I don’t know. That’s a good one. Through out this whole journey, it has been my strength.

How would you define strength? Are you talking about mental, emotional or physical? All of them. I think my mental and emotional strength have come a long way. Physically, as any athlete, you always want to get stronger. I have a lot of work to do in that area.

Abby Dunkin smiling after finishing first in the 400m at the Texas State Championship. Photo Credit: reporternews.com

Abby Dunkin smiling after finishing first in the 400m at the Texas State Championship. Photo Credit: reporternews.com

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? When I won three events at the state meet. It was such a blessing. It was definitely one of my top ten coolest moments.

In 2014, as a senior, Abby competed in the first state track championship to include wheelchair events in Texas. It was an important moment for Abby and all high school track athletes in Texas. It demonstrated great progress and further inclusion of adaptive athletes in interscholastic sports.  At the championship, Abby won the 100m, 400m and shot put.  However, the highlight of the meet was when Abby stopped after she crossed the finish line in the 400m and waited for the three other female track athletes to finish. They then marked this triumphant moment together with a victory lap. The crowd responded with a standing ovation while the coaches and officials wiped tears from their faces. Reminding us of the power of sport and the Paralympic mission “To make for a more inclusive society for people with an impairment through para-sport.”

Team USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball showing off their gold medals at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Photo Credit: NWBA (@NWBA) twitter.com

Just recently in August, Abby had another incredible sports moment. She represented the United States at the 2015 Parapan Games in Toronto. Since it was her rookie year, she saw most of her play time in the early playoffs which eventually led Team USA to the gold medal game against Canada. It was an intense final match up. Fortunately, Team USA pushed hard and earned their way on to the podium. Abby reflected, “People tell you that it is an amazing experience to have the national anthem play for you after you win a gold, but no words can express the feeling. We were all tearing up.” 

She also shared stories about all of the excitement that surrounded the Parapan Games and playing at an international level like being escorted by security guards, trading apparel with athletes from other countries, and using phones to communicate with athletes who spoke languages other than English. For Abby, all of the energy and excitement of the Parapan Games have created a more intense focus on achieving her goal of playing wheelchair basketball in Rio at the 2016 Paralympic Games. She stated, “I am now ready to work even harder. I want to get to the gym more and push harder.” 

Abby Dunkin Post Toronto 2015 Parapan Games Pride Photo Credit: Abby Dunkin

Abby Dunkin Post Toronto 2015 Parapan Games Pride Photo Credit: Abby Dunkin

What books inspire you? The book I mostly read is The Bible. I am also really into war and military type books.

What is on your playlist when you train? I am into acoustics. I like Voice Avenue, James Bay, and Ed Sheeran.  When I am practicing free throws I listen to the band, Explosions in the Sky. The songs don’t have any words. I’m weird like that because before a game I try not to get too hyped up. Instead, I try to stay calm. I like to get focused and more into “the zone.”

Abby's favorite quote from 2 Timothy 4:7. Photo Credit: BibleGodQuotes.com

Abby’s mantra. Photo Credit: BibleGodQuotes.com

What is your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? In high school before a game, we would write our goals on our wrist. It could be something like to get more rebounds or score more points. But I would write, 2T4:7 which is a quote from The Bible. It says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.” In college, I decided to have that quote tattooed on my wrist. Now in a game, I can look down at it and it is a quick reminder and pick me up.

How would you define ability? Ability…I haven’t really thought about that. (Pause.) It is what you can do and not letting anything hold you back, no matter the circumstances.

How would you define grit and relate it to yourself? Grit is really how bad you want something. Like when you have all of these obstacles facing you, and you need to decide if you are willing to push past them or are you willing to just let it play out. I have learned to push through them.

If you’re wondering Abby’s age, she is 19. She now plays wheelchair basketball for University of Texas Arlington (UTA). This past year was the first season UTA had a women’s wheelchair basketball team, and Abby hopes for a great second season. She is studying kinesiology and plans to go into coaching or working with wounded soldiers through adaptive sports. She explains that her desire to work with wounded warriors stems from being a “military brat.” She proudly states, “My dad was a marine officer. My grandfather was a general in the Marines. We are a Marine family.”

Abby Dunkin Getting Ready for Parapan Games Photo Credit: herald-zeitung.com

Abby Dunkin Getting Ready for Parapan Games Photo Credit: herald-zeitung.com

What is your sports story? I was playing basketball in the able-bodied way, and God decided, ‘No, that is not what you are supposed to do.’ He put me in a chair and was like, ‘Here is what you are going to do.’ I could write a short story about what I have lost, but a novel about what I have gained in life. I have gained a totally new perspective not only on the game, but on life. I have a perspective now that I could never have had if I stayed able-bodied, and I don’t regret it.

When you were playing able-bodied ball, did you know about wheelchair basketball and the Paralympics? Not really. I really had no idea what it was and now that I play it. I love it way more than I did able-bodied basketball. It’s more contact. It’s more everything.

What advice do you have for other athletes? You can talk all you want about how bad you want it, but it does’t matter unless you do something about it. If you want it, go get it. Nothing is holding you back.

What are your workouts like? We do weights which is pretty much all upper body. For conditioning, we push around the gym a lot. We do mostly sprints. The worst are when we do a 12 minute push. It is when you sprint around the gym for 12 minutes. It sucks.  And, we practice lots of shooting.

Abby Dunkin at Texas State Championship

Abby Dunkin at Texas State Championship Photo Credit: Melissa Dunkin

Who would you like to thank? My biggest supporter is my mom. She has been awesome. I want to thank everyone at UTA. All of my teammates at UTA and in New Braunfels. My whole community in New Braunfels has been amazing. They have been there since I got in a wheelchair. I really want to thank everyone who has helped me along the way. It has been a huge blessing.

To learn more about Abby you can read these articles:

Dallas News “A year ago I was in deep depression,” she said. “Not where I needed to be. But God has opened so many doors, and I’ve realized there’s more out there for me.”

Yahoo News “We can accomplish the same goal,” she said. 

Washington News “Being able to compete with them was special. We’re just laying the foundation for something bigger.”