What does it mean to achieve success? That can be a complicated question depending on the aspect of life to which it’s applied. One of the things that’s so compelling about team sports, though – and one reason being a fan is so much fun – is the relative ease of answering it. Generally speaking, if your team wins in competition, you consider that a success. If it loses, you don’t. Simple.

From a coach’s perspective, however, things are a bit more complicated. Success is more a measure of progress than of victory or defeat. If a team I’m coaching plays its best basketball in a loss, to me that is still a success. If it plays poor, uninspired basketball but wins against a weaker opponent, it’s not.

As I prepared to coach the Afghanistan men’s national team in its second-ever international competition – the 2017 International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Asia-Oceania (IWBF AOZ) Championships in Beijing, China in late October – I spent a lot of time trying to determine how our team should measure whether or not it was successful. The IWBF AOZ Championships were the qualifying tournament for the IWBF World Championships, to be held in Germany in 2018, and brought together the 14 best national teams from across Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Given that Afghanistan had gone winless in its first international tournament – the AOZ qualifier for the Rio Paralympics, held in Japan in 2015 – and had only had the chance to train together three times in the two years since, capturing one of the four men’s qualifying positions at this tournament was probably not an achievable success metric.

The team would be dealing with an added challenge in that the players would all be using brand new wheelchairs – the first custom-fitted basketball chairs any of them have ever played in – which only arrived two days before they left Afghanistan for the journey to China. The chairs, produced by the head of Thailand’s wheelchair basketball program, are made of aluminum and are of excellent quality; they’re significantly lighter and faster than the steel chairs the players have used since they began playing the game. Those attributes – combined with the better fit and positioning given by the chairs’ customized builds – are normally a huge asset… unless the players haven’t had time to learn how to harness their newfound speed and maneuverability. The team would be able to do more athletically in these chairs, to be sure, but I knew there would likely be a plenty of crashing and unforced turnovers as they went through the process of learning to control themselves in their new equipment.

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Mohammadullah models his brand new basketball wheelchair the day before departing for Beijing

At the end of my last entry, I mentioned that I was unable to travel to Kabul to train the team as originally planned due to a security incident in which one of my (and a few of our players’) ICRC colleagues, Lorena, was tragically killed. Since that incident, the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, which housed the basketball court used by four of our national team players for training, had been temporarily closed. That meant that none of those players had been able to get on the court for nearly a month and a half leading up to the trip to China. As anyone who plays basketball – or any competitive sport – knows, that long away from training makes it extremely difficult to jump back into the game, especially at the sport’s highest level. Luckily for us, the Chinese tournament organizers generously allowed the team to come to Bejing five days early so I could hold a brief training camp to help them prepare. I knew it wouldn’t make up for the months I would have wanted them to be working out daily in their new chairs in order to get as sharp as possible before the big competition, but we were determined to make the most of it.

When we got on the court for the first time, rather than rolling out the basketballs, I spoke to the team about how we would approach our training and the competition from a mental perspective. We are ready to take a big step forward, I told them, but that can only happen if we pull together as a single unit and commit to supporting one another throughout this experience no matter what happens. The cheer we would use to break every huddle would be “mushte wahed,” which loosely translates to “one fist.” That’s how I wanted the guys to think of themselves when they were on the court – five individuals bonded together tightly enough to play as one. The team-as-a-fist concept was something I read in a book by a well-known U.S. college coach, and it seemed tailor made for a group of Afghans, each coming from different tribes, different regions, different cultural backgrounds, but needing to cast all those differences aside in order to maximize their collective talent.

I also posed a question to them that would help all of us gauge how successful our tournament would be – something much more esoteric than wins and losses. “What do you want the rest of the teams here to leave Beijing thinking about Afghanistan wheelchair basketball?” Each player answered in turn, and all the answers were insightful and deep. The common themes among them were:

  1. We want everyone to see that Afghanistan wheelchair basketball is no longer weak, but that we are now a real team ready to compete at the international level, and;
  2. We want them to see that Afghanistan is not just war and poverty and extremism; it is a country full of good people. People like us.

They were perfect measures of success.

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The Tournament

During the training camp, we had the opportunity to play a series of “friendly” games against the Chinese men’s and women’s teams (the Chinese women were the defending AOZ champions and would go on to defend their title in their home country), as well as the men’s teams from Thailand and New Zealand. The practice games were very challenging – we lost each of the games against the Chinese teams and the Thais by at least 25 – but with each game, our team got a little better and a little more comfortable in their new chairs. By the time we played New Zealand the day before the tournament officially started, we led the entire game and went into the final three minutes of the game with a five point lead.

At that point I had a difficult decision to make. I knew I could leave our starters – who were playing very well – in the game and have a good chance to pull off the victory, but in the spirit of our “one fist” motto, I wanted to see if the bench could hold a lead under such pressure. I needed to know how various combinations of players would perform in tight situations before we got to the real games, and I wanted everyone to have a chance to confront stress and play through it in case they needed to be called on to do it in a future game. So I put four new players into the game as an experiment. It didn’t work. New Zealand’s starters seized on the opportunity and came back to win. While it was frustrating to the Afghan players not to finish off the win that they felt they had in hand, they understood when I explained to them why I’d made the change, and everyone stood behind the reserves who had given up the lead at the end of the game. They expressed confidence in each other and in the team. That’s all I wanted.

The next morning, following the opening ceremonies, we played China in front of their home crowd to kick off the tournament. In spite of the series of warm-up games we’d played, the pressure of the moment led to some serious first-quarter jitters for the Afghans. We scored one point and trailed by over 20 at the end of the first period. I told them to forget about the score and focus on doing the things we’d worked on in practice the past several days. Remember, all we care about is improving each quarter, each half, each game, I said. They took the words to heart and came out looking like a different team for the rest of the game, even outscoring the Chinese team in the third quarter, 18-15. The final score was still lopsided – we lost by 53 – but that was 25 points closer than the practice game we’d played against the same China team just four days earlier. Progress!

Our second game, against an excellent Korea team, was even harder – the Koreans ran a suffocating full court press defense the entire game – but still the Afghans cut the margin of defeat by 17 from the game we’d played against them in Japan two years prior. Korea would go on to finish fourth in the tournament, capturing the zone’s final qualifying position at the world championships and joining the world’s elite class of teams. There was certainly no shame in losing to them as long as we could maintain our focus throughout the game, which we did.

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Ramazan and the Afghans gamely picked themselves up off the floor again and again against Korea, an elite team that played a merciless press defense throughout the game

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Wasim – a rookie player on the national team – swishes a long three pointer near the end of the game against Korea

In my mind, all the games to that point – practice or official, win or lose – were in service of preparing our team for its third game of the tournament against the United Arab Emirates. UAE had beaten us in Japan in our first ever official international game, but we felt at the time that we would be ready for them the next time we played. This would be our last game in the group stage of the tournament and we knew that a victory would put us in a winnable game in the first playoff round with a chance to finish as high as 9th in the tournament. The players, though they expressed confidence, definitely felt the pressure as they took the court. Playing against a slower, more methodical team rather than at the fast pace they were used to in the other games we’d played led to our team playing a choppy, disjointed style, resulting in a series of missed shots, bad passes and offensive fouls as they pushed their new wheelchairs past the limits of their control. It was clear that we had the advantage in athleticism and probably in talent, but the UAE team knew its strengths and played within its limits, making very few mistakes. The game was close throughout, and the Afghans fought hard until the end, but by the end the more experienced UAE team took control and came away with the victory.

The loss was a difficult pill for the team to swallow. The guys knew that they’d improved a great deal –their opinion had been corroborated by several coaches and officials who had seen us play in Japan in 2015 and were astounded by how different they looked now – and they’d really expected to get the win. I was disappointed as well; I couldn’t stop thinking about what else I could have done to better prepare them to play under the pressure of a game they knew they had a chance to win – the first time they’d ever been in that position. Ultimately, though, I knew it was just another step in the growth process. What mattered in that moment was shaking off the melancholy and getting mentally prepared for our final game against Saudi Arabia – a bigger, faster version of the UAE team we’d just lost to – the next morning.

After letting the team process the loss on their own that evening, I brought them together early the next morning to prepare for Saudi Arabia. It was certainly not a game we would go into expecting to win, but I knew that if the guys played their best basketball, we could all leave feeling like we’d accomplished something. To their great credit, they shook off the disappointment of the UAE loss and played the best half in their history, with every player giving his best effort – whether on the floor or cheering from the bench – on the way to a five point halftime lead. I wish I could have captured the feeling of that halftime huddle in a bottle. I’d never seen the team so confident or so excited.

Unfortunately, the exhaustion from a ninth consecutive day playing against superior competition took its toll in the second half. Saudi Arabia – like the UAE team had the day before – leaned on its experience, got our best player to foul out, and came back to claim the victory. The feeling after the game was nothing like it had been after the previous loss, though. The team had seen its potential come alive in the first half, and despite the final result, it knew – as did I – that all that potential was finally ready to come to fruition.

On the final day of the competition, the team from Taiwan – which had finished 9th out of 14 teams in the tournament (the spot I’d hoped we would play for before the tournament) – invited us to play one more friendly game. It was a chance to get one more dose of invaluable international experience against a well-balanced, fast team, so we eagerly accepted. While the game didn’t count on the official books, our team clearly showed that it was ready to build on its encouraging first half against Saudi Arabia. Once again, we took a narrow lead into halftime. The second half was a back-and-forth battle where Afghanistan held its own and, after Taiwan scored on consecutive possessions to take a 2 point lead with 10 seconds to go, we had two shots to tie on the final play. Sadly, both shots rimmed out, leading to another agonizingly close loss. But to play a game so tightly with a team that finished six positions higher than us was a major step forward. Once again, the guys were proud of their performance and were able to see the game in the context of their continued improvement and future success.

Both the men’s and women’s teams from Afghanistan will have a chance to build on their recent tournament experiences soon. We will travel to Bangkok the first week in March to play in another Asia-wide tournament made up of many of the same teams we saw in Beijing.

The Wall

The day before we left – the team and Alberto to return to Afghanistan and me to come home to Colorado – we had a free day that gave us our one chance to absorb some Chinese history and culture. Alberto and I decided that we’d charter a bus to take the team to the Great Wall of China, a section of which had been made wheelchair accessible for the first time in advance of the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. Everybody knows about the Great Wall – even Afghan wheelchair basketball players – so everyone was excited for the experience.

After a long bus ride through Beijing and up into the hills, we pushed our chairs (or hobbled, in most of the players’ cases) up a series of steep stone streets to reach the gondola that we would ride up to the Wall. The weather was perfect and the leaves on the trees blanketing the hills had turned all colors of orange, red, and yellow. When we reached the top (after a few more treacherously steep ramps), everyone was awestruck by the view from the top of the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. To stand atop the Wall and feel how massive it is, then look at it crawling along the hills into the distance – knowing it reaches 5,500 miles (8,852 kilometers) across the north of China – is almost unfathomable.

The highlight of the trip came after the players had been exploring along the wall for 30 minutes or so and had reconvened at the broad landing area. The three players from Maimana – Sakhi, Alem and Ramazan – each of whom I had coached as teenagers when I first came to Afghanistan in 2009, had brought a tabla (traditional hand drum) with them to China. Sakhi, who is a skilled player, sat down on the top of the wall and started playing a lively rhythm while Alem danced. Soon our group was surrounded by a throng of clapping (mostly Chinese) tourists, one of whom even joined Alem and danced along in the center of the circle. The energy in that crowd of different nationalities and ethnicities was so joyful and accepting that it almost brought tears to my eyes. That a group of 12 disabled Afghans could be cheered and photographed like celebrities atop the most famous structure in the world is such a remarkable thing; something I never could have imagined when I first met them.

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Haidar, like many of his teammates, was treated like a celebrity at the Great Wall, being repeatedly asked to pose for photos with strangers

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Sakhi (seated) plays a beat on his tabla while Alem performs a traditional dance alongside an outgoing Chinese tourist atop the Great Wall (not pictured: the throng of multinational tourists enthusiastically clapping along)

So it turns out that the measures of success at an international wheelchair basketball tournament can be multifaceted. Maybe we didn’t win a game, but the team certainly achieved its goals of showing the international wheelchair basketball community that it is for real and introducing everyone with whom they interacted to the beautiful, joyous side of Afghanistan. For that, they should be very proud.

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“Mushte Wahed!” (One fist)

Earlier this week, I completed my first coaching trip to Ethiopia as well as my first official foreign mission in my new job as the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Disability Sport and Integration Advisor. It was another wonderful experience meeting a large group of brand new wheelchair basketball players, coaches, referees, and classifiers as well as reuniting with some of my favorite colleagues in a new context.

I’d been planning this trip for several months in partnership with Solomon Berthanu, an Ethiopian ICRC physiotherapist with whom I’ve shared missions to Afghanistan the past two springs (in addition to his regular job in Ethiopia, Solomon also teaches wheelchair fitting to physiotherapy students in other countries). Solomon did a tremendous job setting up the program in advance of my arrival, pulling together around 25 coaches (all of whom had previous experience coaching either standing or wheelchair basketball), 15 aspiring referees, and 10 physiotherapists and would-be classifiers, along with 30 players from six regions of Ethiopia, some of whom traveled many hours to attend the courses. It was a tremendous group of highly-motivated, passionate people that I can already tell will take Ethiopian wheelchair basketball well beyond its current infant stage in the very near future.

In addition to reconnecting with Solomon, I also had the pleasure of working again with Prem Siggurthi, the former ICRC physical rehabilitation (PRP) manager in Gaza with whom I shared my first mission there in 2015, and Venkat Packirisamy, who, before coming to Ethiopia, was the PRP manager in South Sudan when I visited in January of this year. It’s a very strong team, and the well-organized structure of the whole program spoke to their collective vision for expanding the scope and efficacy of disability sport in Ethiopia.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on the 28th of September and was told by Solomon on the short drive from the airport to my hotel that the timing of my trip was excellent because the rainy season ends on September 27th every year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the country’s tourism marketing slogan is “13 months of sunshine in Ethiopia.” Weather forecasters in Addis seem to be very… aspirational.

Imagine my surprise, then, when day one of my introductory courses on wheelchair basketball coaching, refereeing, and classification the following day was interrupted for a solid 20 minutes by rain hammering so hard on the metal roof of the gymnasium that students five feet away couldn’t hear me shouting at the top of my lungs. Maybe next year, Ethiopian meteorologists. Luckily the rain did finally cease on the last day of our three-day theoretical courses, giving way to sun and perfect mid-70s temperatures for the on-court week of player training.

It’s really exciting to see how much my collective past experiences teaching (and observing others teach) classes in the various disciplines of the game have begun to accrue into a pretty efficient program that can be implemented anywhere wheelchair basketball is still relatively new. For instance, I incorporated several elements of the practical training structure used by Esahn Idkaidek in his classification course in Gaza this past May and found that it brought a new level of understanding to the versions of the course I’d given previously. With the referees, I stepped back for the first time and didn’t referee any games myself – choosing instead to simply observe and correct the novice officials as necessary while they did the lion’s share of the work themselves. Similarly to the classifiers, they showed remarkable growth, confidence, and knowledge after just a few days. The coaches also did great work and showed true passion for the game even though many of them were new to the wheelchair version of it. All together, the collection of talent Solomon brought together for these classes should serve as a very solid foundation from which this program will grow in the coming years.

The players, as is always the case, were absolutely delightful to coach. Many of them have been playing casually for two to three years, and several actually had a chance to work with my new ICRC colleague, Mina Mojtahedi (a former University of Illinois player who is now the Disability Inclusion Coordinator for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, including the ICRC) when she visited Ethiopia last year and spent several weekends putting on voluntary clinics in several regions. The other advantage they had over beginning players in countries where I’ve coached previously is that several of them are competitive wheelchair racers as well as basketball players. I was blown away by the speed they put on display the first day we worked together. The other edge of that sword, however, is that they haven’t developed wheelchair or ball control skills that are commensurate with their raw power and speed, which led to some dramatic (but thankfully non-injurious) crashes in the first few days.

Teaching the players wheelchair skills was actually the biggest physical challenge for me. Every time I demonstrated one of the drills, which feature hard sprinting and quick turns that build chair facility as well as endurance, I felt every inch of Addis Ababa’s 8,000 feet of elevation. Apparently basketball and offroad handcycling in Colorado (Denver/Boulder are at a mere 5,000 feet) didn’t have me in quite the shape I thought!

The week proceeded as well as I could have hoped, with each group of trainees equally interested in mastering the basics of their chosen discipline. It was also a new and fun experience for me to have men and women practicing and learning on the court together. We split the 30 players into two groups based on experience, but without regard for gender, and it worked beautifully. However, at the end of the week, when we planned to conclude with two days of games, the women decided that they’d prefer to play amongst themselves in order to best display their newfound skills. I gladly granted them the request, as they’d spent five days playing physically demanding scrimmage games alongside their bigger, more reckless male counterparts. I think playing with the men for the better part of the week sharpened their skills for the competition portion, though, and they played better than I think even they expected. One of the top female players in the weekend games was Burtay, a tiny but highly competitive player who really blossomed over the course of the week. She led her team to three straight victories, scoring consistently (and fist-pumping exultantly afterward) despite being the smallest player on the floor. She and the rest of the female players made me (and hopefully themselves) extremely proud with their level of improvement and the display they put on for a sizeable gathered crowd on the final day.

The men also showed remarkable growth during the week, though they’d had a bit more time to ingrain previous bad habits borne of training for a couple years without much regular supervision. I told them (and their coaches) repeatedly that they’ll only reach the next level of their development if they force themselves to go through the rigorous process of practicing only with proper technique from now on. They’re really trying, but, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When it came to game time, their enthusiasm (and probably excitement about playing in front of so many people) led to a few adrenaline-fuelled high speed collisions and wild shots, but eventually they calmed down and put on an impressive show. Those in the audience who had watched them before expressed amazement at the change in their play and their improved coordination with each other. There are athletes on both the men’s and women’s side that show a lot of potential for future growth, as long as their coaches keep them honest with their training habits. Africa is fairly wide-open in terms of international wheelchair basketball, with only two countries – Algeria and South Africa – having competed at the Paralympic and World Championship level, so Ethiopia and other countries like it with fledgling wheelchair basketball programs have a great opportunity to create a broader competitive environment across the continent.

With support from the ICRC, the Ethiopian Basketball Federation, and the Ethiopian Ministry of Youth and Sport, I can’t wait to see the heights wheelchair basketball can reach in Ethiopia. My plan is to return in a year, and I hope to see a real transformation among all the participants with whom I had the pleasure to work over the past week and a half.

Special thanks to my deputized translator for all the sessions, Henok Masresha, who is a university teacher with a master’s degree in basketball (how come nobody ever told me that was a thing when I was in college??), and who showed incredible facility in all the technical aspects of wheelchair basketball even though it was his first time experiencing them. It’s hard enough to learn one of these disciplines, much less all three while translating. Henok was such an instrumental part of the program’s success that the other participants all pitched in to buy him a new coaching shirt as a thank you gift. They presented it, along with an outfit of traditional Ethiopian clothing for me, at the final celebration on Sunday. They also gave me a set of ornamental Ethiopian coffee cups in honor of the “teacup” defense I taught the players over the course of the week. It was a special moment.

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Henok (with ball), with me, player/coach Nezaned, and referee extraordinaire Habte (Photos courtesy of Solomon Berthanu)

Tragedy in Afghanistan

About a month ago, an ICRC physiotherapist in Afghanistan, Lorena Enebral Perez – with whom I’d struck up a friendship during my visit to Kabul in May of this year, and who had worked for the ICRC in Ethiopia before moving to Afghanistan – was tragically shot and killed at the ICRC Orthopaedic Centre in Mazar-i-Sharif. It was a devastating blow for all of us who knew Lorena – she was one of the most vivacious, colorful, magnetic people I’ve met in my years doing this work – and for the ICRC itself.

Such a shocking and terrible event forced the ICRC in Afghanistan to make some difficult decisions about staffing in the country, and the mission I’d planned to conduct there following the one in Ethiopia had to be canceled. My plan had been to hold a week-long training camp for the Afghan men’s national team in advance of our trip to Beijing to compete in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) Asia-Oceania Championships, the qualifying tournament for the IWBF World Championships in Germany next year.

Hard as it was to think about anything basketball-related in the immediate face of such grief, I knew I couldn’t take the team to such a huge competition (the biggest wheelchair basketball tournament ever held in Asia, with 14 men’s and 4 women’s teams) without preparing them properly. Alberto Cairo and I reached out to the Chinese tournament organizers to see if they would allow our team to come to Beijing a week early so I could conduct a training camp there in lieu of the one I’d planned in Kabul. The hosts were gracious and accommodating given the situation and granted us our request. So, after just a few days at home, I’m leaving for Beijing tomorrow morning to meet the team and get to work preparing for our second-ever international tournament. Our hearts will be a little heavier than usual during such an exciting event, but we will honor Lorena’s memory by trying to play with the same joy and exuberance with which she blessed the world during her life. Rest in peace, Lorena.

There have been exciting developments on several fronts since my last blog post three months ago. I spent two weeks in Gaza helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee lead their wheelchair basketball program to the next level, spent a week at the United Nations in New York engaging in my first round of multilateral diplomacy, supported the Indian men’s and women’s national teams in experiencing a fantastic training camp under the guidance one of the world’s top player/coaches followed by them playing – along with the Afghanistan women’s team – in their first ever international competition, and I started an exciting new job with the International Committee of the Red Cross that will see the sports program we’ve spent the last several years building take a big leap forward in the coming years. There’s a lot to catch up on, so tuck in for the highlights of the summer (so far!).

Gaza
Back in May, after having spent time in Thailand, Afghanistan, and touring the East Coast of the U.S, I flew back across the Atlantic for my annual spring coaching trip to Gaza. I focused the two weeks on training each of the eight men’s and four women’s club teams that are now practicing in Gaza, as well as helping the Palestinian Paralympic Committee (PPC) develop a strategy for making its wheelchair basketball program a stronger, more efficient vehicle for stimulating social inclusion for people with physical disabilities while setting it up to give its top players opportunities to represent Palestine in international competitions soon.

The players and coaches in Gaza have been working hard on improving their games over the past year, and have gathered increased motivation through watching one of their own – Fadi Deeb, a player I’ve been coaching since my first trip to Gaza in 2015 – earn a professional contract to play for a team in Turkey, which boasts one of the top leagues in the world. Fadi’s story is remarkable, and I’ll tell it in more detail in a separate post soon, but suffice to say that a player from Gaza playing professional wheelchair basketball in a league as renowned as Turkey’s was just the type of achievement the program needed in order to see its own potential for great collective achievement.
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Fadi leading the fast break in a Turkish league game

The other breakthrough that helped move the bar in Gaza was a visit from Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, my old friend and an expert in the technical field of wheelchair basketball classification. While I was teaching the players and coaches, Ehsan was educating a group of 20 classifier candidates from around Gaza, who were studying in the hopes of being named to the five-person classification panel that would lead this discipline for all Gaza. Ehsan is a tremendous resource and a fantastic teacher, and was very impressed with the quality of the students taking part in his course. While only five were selected for the panel, all the classification trainees will be instrumental in helping the club teams accurately classify new players.

On the back of Fadi’s success and with a new cadre of expert classifiers, the PPC and I selected the first men’s national team for Gaza, with the intent of those 12 players working with two of the top coaches – Ibrahim and Mohammad – to create a new level of technical competency within Gaza, from which all the other teams and players can learn. The eventual goal – hopefully in the not-distant-future – is to have the Gaza national team compete against the national team from the West Bank and, following the competition, form the first truly Palestinian wheelchair basketball national team that will (hopefully) represent the country in international competition. We’d hoped to schedule such a competition last year, but were blocked by the relevant authorities refusing to issue the necessary permits for the players from the West Bank to cross into Gaza. We will find a way to make this happen somehow; as challenging as the situation is in Gaza, nobody is giving up.

Speaking at the UN
A week after I returned home to the U.S. at the beginning of June, I was back on an airplane, this time to represent the ICRC at the UN Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UN CRPD) at the UN General Assembly in New York. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet UN representatives and many other key figures in promoting rights for people with disabilities around the world, as well as engage in discussion about ensuring people with disabilities are actively engaged in planning and participating in humanitarian action in situations of violence, conflict, and other emergencies. I was given the opportunity to give three separate addresses during the Conference, covering the ICRC’s stance on the importance of enabling inclusion in humanitarian action as well as discussion of the work the ICRC has been doing to promote inclusion for people with disabilities through sport in countries dealing with conflict. No one booed, which I took as a good sign.UN 2017 1UN 2017 2

India’s National Teams Get a Crash Course in Wheelchair Basketball from Brad Ness
Soon after returning home from Gaza, I got an email request from Madhavi Latha, the President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI). The WBFI was planning to send men’s and women’s national teams to the Bali Cup – an international wheelchair basketball tournament being held at the end of July (at which the Afghanistan Women’s National Team would also be making their international debut) – and needed an experienced coach to give their top men’s and women’s players a two week training course to prepare them for their first international competition.

The challenge Madhavi was facing was that the training camp was being funded by the Australian Consulate in India, but they would only pay for a foreign coach to fly in if the coach was an Australian. She asked if I knew anyone who might be willing to undertake the mission as a volunteer with the camp scheduled to take place just two weeks later. It was a tall order, but I  immediately had an idea. Brad Ness, the captain of the Austrailian national team and a multiple time Paralympic medalist who had shared inspiring words with the Afghanistan men’s team at their first tournament in Japan in 2015, and who had told me when we met in Brazil at the Paralympics last year that he was willing do whatever he could to support the work the ICRC and I are doing with wheelchair basketball in developing countries, was the first call I’d make.

Amazingly, but not surprisingly, Brad agreed right away. Two weeks later, his plane was landing in Chennai for two weeks of coaching in the sweltering heat and humidity of Southeast India. The players took to Brad’s gregarious personality immediately and learned a great deal from his vast experience and knowledge of the game. At the end of the camp, he helped the WBFI to select their first men’s and women’s national teams to compete in the Bali Cup.
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Brad Ness teaches coaches and women’s national team hopefuls in Chennai

The Bali Cup
I met the organizer of the Bali Cup tournament – Rodney Holt, another Australian who has been working for several years to build sport programs for people with disabilities in Indonesia – when I was in Thailand with the Afghanistan and Indian women’s teams for the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation’s (IWBF’s) training camp for developing women’s teams in April. Rodney was excited to be offering a women’s wheelchair basketball competition in Bali for the first time and was able to recruit Thailand’s women’s team as well as Afghanistan, India, and the hometown Indonesian team. It was a perfect first opportunity for the Afghans (as well as the other competing teams) to get their first taste of international competition.

Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to go to Bali with the team. Sad as I was not to be able to experience their first competition with them, I saw it as an important opportunity for their young coach, Tahera Yosoufi of the Afghan women’s able bodied basketball national team, to take on the leadership role for which I’d been grooming her over the past year and a half. Tahera was assisted by Wasiqullah Sediqi, captain of the Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team, so I knew the team would be in good hands.

Instead of showing up with first tournament jitters, the team coalesced around their shared first experience and played their best basketball yet. They won each of their games by over 30 points on their way to the tournament championship! According to Coach Tahera when I asked her how the team had interacted with her and each other during the tournament, “the players all played together and were happy and relaxed on the road, and this helped me to be focused and positive. This championship has had a great impact on us all!” It was music to my ears.

I wasn’t the only one who was excited to follow the team’s remarkable success from afar, though; the Afghan media splashed photos and video of the players all over their print and TV coverage upon their return home, hailing them as heroes for representing their country so proudly. The international media took notice as well, with NPR running an article on its blog about the team’s big victory, and several outlets having asked for interviews in the couple weeks since the tournament. The players even got invited to share tea with the first lady of Afghanistan, who was fascinated to hear their story.

Rodney summed the experience up perfectly when he told the IWBF newsletter, “This was the Afghanistan women’s first overseas tournament and they quickly became the crowd favorites with their cheerfulness, passion and skills. They presented a personal face to a country that most of us know just from the news, and unfortunately news which is mostly negative. They were great ambassadors for their country.”

It’s truly phenomenal to think back to just five years ago, when the first few female players in Afghanistan (several of whom are now on this team) started by practicing in strict privacy to keep from being observed and judged for their new hobby. What a transformation they’ve made in such a short time.

The men’s and women’s teams from India also did their country proud, bringing home bronze medals in both tournaments. They got similarly ebullient coverage of their success in the national news, and should be equally proud of the progress they’ve made in just three years of playing.
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Team Afghanistan, led by Coach Tahera Yosoufi (right) takes the court in Bali

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Mulkara took home the trophy as the tournament’s top scorer

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Sumaya, despite being the youngest player on the team, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player

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Shabona and her teammates honored the Afghan flag with their performance in Bali

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Nadia (left) and Kamela brought their best games to Indonesia

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Freshta (left), Farzana, Nadia, Sumaya, and the team celebrate their first title

More Excitement is in Store for the Afghans
Even with the continuing electric buzz about the Afghan women’s team’s success, the men’s team is already looking forward to its next international challenge. In late October, they will compete in the Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Championships. The qualifying tournament, even bigger in scale than the Paralympic qualifier in Japan in 2015, will take place in Beijing, China and will be the men’s team’s first chance since Japan to test themselves against the best teams from Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. I’ll be coaching the men’s team at the tournament and am so excited to see them represent Afghanistan just as proudly as their female counterparts.

A New Job and a New Era of Possibility
In July I signed a full time contract as the ICRC’s Disability Sport & Integration Advisor, the first position of its kind. By creating this role, the ICRC is committing itself fully to supporting the growth of disability sport and disability inclusion initiatives as a core part of its global Physical Rehabilitation Program. It’s wonderful to see all our work together in Afghanistan, India, Gaza, Cambodia, and South Sudan culminate in such a commitment, and I’m thrilled to be taking on what is sure to be a massive-but-fulfilling challenge in expanding the ICRC’s sport programming to more and more countries around the world.

This new, enhanced focus on sports and inclusion for people with disabilities is also a direct result of a partnership the ICRC has engaged in with Adecco, the largest staffing firm in the world and an instrumental player in helping Olympic and Paralympic Athletes transition from their careers in elite sport to the professional world. Adecco sees the potential in what the ICRC is building through its sport initiatives and agreed to be a major funding and strategic partner moving forward.

My first official duty in my new role was to join Adecco for its first annual Global Sports & Inclusion Day in the Swiss town of Nottwil, home of one of the most famous rehabilitation facilities in the world for people with spinal cord injuries. I had the chance to coach Adecco and ICRC staff in wheelchair basketball for an afternoon – along with a great Swiss player/coach, Nicolas Hausmann – and was elated to see how much fun everyone had. Working with the ICRC and Adecco to grow this program further over the next few years is going to be an incredible experience, with what we all hope will be a huge impact.
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A photo with Max, the young son of an ICRC colleague, in front of a giant poster of the Mazar women’s team celebrating in Afghanistan

I spent the past week with Alberto Cairo on a whirlwind tour of three U.S. East Coast cities – Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. – speaking about the physical rehabilitation work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, including our wheelchair basketball program. The tour was organized by the ICRC’s delegations in D.C. and New York and was a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness among several key audiences about the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan and what the ICRC is doing to help.

Alberto and I flew from Kabul to Boston, where we gave a keynote presentation at the launch of the ICRC’s new collaborative platform for humanitarian innovation in partnership with Swissnex Boston. The presentation was formatted as a moderated discussion led by NPR’s Tom Ashbrook. We followed addresses from several impressive speakers, including Ban Ki-Moon, recent former Secretary General of the United Nations. Our discussion, which can be viewed here, was very well received by an audience of diplomats, thinkers, and humanitarian leaders. Afterward, Ban Ki-Moon came up and personally thanked each of us for the work we’ve done, saying the presentation was very moving for him, particularly since he had spent time in Afghanistan himself during his years leading the U.N. I’ll admit: it was pretty cool to be thanked by someone who has himself done so much important work in global affairs (and whom people address as “your excellency” in conversation).

While in Boston, we also had the chance to meet with several professors at MIT – including the amazing Hugh Herr – to discuss projects they’re working on to develop breakthrough technologies in the field of physical rehabilitation. It was fascinating to hear about the innovation happening on topics including prosthetics, spinal cord regeneration, and wheelchair design for the developing world. What an amazing opportunity to get to hear from true geniuses about the important work they and their students are doing.

After Boston, we spent parts of two days in New York, where we had a string of meetings and presentations lined up. The first meeting was with the deputy UN representative from Afghanistan who, upon our entering his office, immediately recognized Alberto. It turned out that early in his career he spent a year teaching English at the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Mazar-i-Sharif. Everyone in Afghanistan is connected to Alberto somehow; he’s the Kevin Bacon of Kabul.

The following afternoon, Alberto and I were invited to the Italian delegation to the U.N, where we were scheduled to present our story to members of the U.N’s “Friends of Afghanistan” group as well as members of the U.N. Security Council. We assumed that just a few country representatives would make the time in their busy schedules to join, but the conference room quickly filled to capacity, with U.N. representatives from over 20 countries attending. We again got great feedback, with the representative from Canada speaking for the group in saying that they very rarely get to hear such inspiring stories. It was a great chance to build the foundation for important bonds with such an influential group.

We then spent two days in Washington D.C. meeting with more interesting groups – including one at the State Department – and doing several media interviews, including one at the offices of National Public Radio (for their Goats and Soda international development blog, which should be posted soon).

It was an honor to be able to join a legend like Alberto and tell my small part in the phenomenal story of the ICRC’s work on behalf of people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan. It was also great to draw the attention of several important audiences back to Afghanistan after it has increasingly drifted off the radar of the international community in recent years due to fatigue over what seems to be an endless war. Sitting in meeting rooms in U.S. metropolises may not be quite as exciting as teaching players in conflict zones how to play wheelchair basketball, but I hope taking the opportunities offered to do the former will lead to support that will allow me and the ICRC to do much more of the latter.

I arrived in Gaza today to spend the next week and a half working with players, coaches, the local Paralympic Committee, ICRC colleagues, and my old friend, Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, with the goal of helping Gaza wheelchair basketball take another big step forward in its development.

Two days after the women’s national team returned from the IWBF training camp in Thailand, we held the female national tournament in Kabul. For the 10 players who had traveled to Chon Buri, it was a tall order to get back in their basketball chairs on a single day’s rest after such an eventful week. The three teams (Kabul, Mazar, Herat) tackled the tournament with their usual gusto, though, with the star players pushing through their fatigue to lead their teams to impressive performances and a series of close games throughout. In the final game, Mazar came out victorious over Kabul for the third straight tournament, with Freshta – one of the players who attended the Thailand camp – winning her third straight Most Valuable Player award. Freshta is the five foot-tall Lebron James of Afghanistan women’s wheelchair basketball.

Following the one-day women’s tournament, the girls returned to their home provinces – the national team players undoubtedly overjoyed to see their families (and eat familiar food) again – and we moved onto the men’s tournament. For the second year in a row, we had eight men’s teams competing for the championship, which meant six days of games over a seven day period. The first two days of the tournament went well, with the teams showing noticeable growth in their games since I was here just six months ago. It was clear that the coaches had been pushing their players to take the next step in their development, both from individual and team perspectives. The newest teams – Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak – had started to coalesce and were finally able to put up competitive performances in their first two games against their more experienced opponents. Afghanistan wheelchair basketball was getting closer to reaching an international standard of play.

The best moment of the first few days was seeing Viktor Thiessen, the former director of the Maimana Orthopaedic Center and the architect of the basketball court there (the site of my first experience coaching in Afghanistan), watch the team he’d formed play for the first time since he had departed Afghanistan for Germany back in the summer of 2009. When he last saw the Maimana players they were still kids trying in vain to push huge, three-wheeled offroad wheelchairs around the newly-constructed court, unsure of what to do with the ball he’d given them. Seeing them now, adult athletes playing in a highly-competitive tournament and making mind-blowingly skillful moves in their basketball wheelchairs, his eyes were glistening with pride and awe at how far they’d come. He thanked me for everything I’ve helped them achieve, and I returned the thanks for everything he did to help start this process. It was a beautiful, full-circle moment.

On the third and final day of the tournament’s first round, play opened with a matchup between Maimana and their archrivals from Kabul. The two teams have each won multiple national championships (three for Kabul and two for Maimana) and the winner of the game would take the top seed from their group, along with momentum and a lot of confidence, into the tournament’s playoff round. As expected, the game was hotly contested from the outset. Both teams were playing fast, leading to some hard falls on touch fouls and a bit of trash talking from both sides. Kabul built a 10-plus point lead in the first half, which it maintained through most of the third and fourth quarters despite strong play from Maimana. In the game’s final minute, though, Maimana went on a run that saw it score seven points in 20 seconds on a pair of steals leading to fast break layups followed by a three pointer from Ramazan, their star point guard. Suddenly a comfortable Kabul lead had been cut to five with 30 seconds to play.

When Kabul called a timeout following Ramazan’s three, the cadre of Maimana supporters in the crowd cheered wildly, sensing that a dramatic finish was on the way and that their team still had a chance to steal a victory. Coming out of the timeout, the tournament director cautioned the Maimana fans not to whistle during their cheers, as it could make the players mistakenly think the referees were blowing their whistles to stop play. In response, one of the fans hurled an insult at the director, initiating a heated back-and-forth that nearly ended with the fan’s ejection from the gym. He was ultimately allowed to stay for the game’s conclusion, and the contingent of Maimana fans amped up their support even louder.

In spite of the cheering section for their opponents drowning out their home crowd, the Kabul team managed to score two quick baskets following the Maimana timeout, putting the game out of reach as it neared its end. Following the second goal, which gave Kabul a nine point lead with just six seconds to play, the scoreboard operator neglected to stop the game clock, allowing the final seconds to tick away. I immediately rushed to the scorer’s table to correct the error and told them to put six seconds back on the clock so Maimana would have its final possession. One of the Maimana players, furious at the mistake, met me at the table and shouted that the table staff were all cheating on behalf of the hometown Kabul team. I ushered him away, demanding that he calm down and stop making such inflammatory accusations. I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears as he continued to fume. Maimana finally took the ball and inbounded, time expired, and the game ended with a Kabul victory. Then everything went crazy.

One of the table staff, deeply insulted by the Maimana player’s accusations, grabbed a microphone and started shouting, “KABUL! KABUL!” into the public address system while staring straight at the Maimana players on their bench. Recognizing that this had the potential to get dangerous given the tension in the gym, I immediately ripped the microphone out of his hands. As I did, I heard a commotion on the opposite side of the gym and turned to see Maimana and Kabul supporters in the crowd shouting at and shoving each other. I dropped the microphone and flew across the court to try to stop things from escalating further. Before I could get there, though, the spectator’s section erupted in violence, with punches being thrown in all directions. Suddenly half of the gymnasium was engulfed in a brawl, with several of the players from Kabul wading into the fray. Alberto, myself, and several ICRC security guards attempted to break up the fight, but it was out of control. Chairs were being swung and thrown, crutches were being used as weapons, and fists were flying everywhere. It was hard to tell how long it lasted – it was probably less than five minutes total, but it seemed like it went on for hours as we jostled through the scrum trying to separate people, our commands to stop swallowed by the cacophony.

Eventually things reversed course from punches to shoves to yelling, and finally the group was spent and the fighting ceased. Miraculously, aside from a few bruises and scrapes, no one was seriously injured (thankfully all the chairs in the gym are made of plastic). However, I was in complete shock that something like this could have happened at all.

Perhaps I was being naïve in thinking that our game in Afghanistan would maintain its innocence forever, no matter how skilled and competitive the players became. I see the game evolve here in positive ways every time I visit, but there are elements of team partisanship that have evolved as well. Clearly steps need to be taken to ensure those are channeled in a positive manner as we move forward.

Once the spectators and players had been cleared from the gym and order restored, Alberto and I decided that the only possible response to such a scenario was to cancel the remainder of the tournament. A message had to be sent that violence would never be tolerated in our game – whether by players or fans, and certainly not at the ICRC facility – and we felt that sending everyone home was the most direct way to deliver that message.

There will be additional disciplinary measures for all those who were directly involved in provoking and escalating this situation – something the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan and I hate having to do, but realize is absolutely necessary if we are going to prevent this type of occurrence from ever happening again.

The coaches of all eight teams met the afternoon of the fight, then came to me pledging that each would to commit himself to establishing a team culture in his province that will not allow this type of antipathy to exist in the future. I’ve also talked to the players who were involved and tried my best to make them understand that, no matter what provocation they experienced or what excuses they have for behaving in such an inexcusable manner, they are responsible for their own actions. First and foremost, they need to see that they are always representatives of their teams, their country, and our game, and that their decisions in a moment like this leave a permanent impression about all these entities. It’s a sad end to my time in Afghanistan this spring, but I hope this will be a powerful learning moment for everyone and that we will all be able to grow from a situation I hoped we’d never have to deal with.

Over the past week, the Afghanistan Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team participated in a training camp in Thailand held by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) for teams from all around Asia. The camp was the first of its kind for developing teams (those from countries, like Afghanistan, with relatively new programs) and athletes (those from established programs looking to take a step toward elite-level competition), and was the first opportunity the Afghan women’s team has had to join the international wheelchair basketball community. It’s been a long time coming – I’ve been trying to find an opportunity for the women to travel abroad since Afghanistan became an IWBF member two years ago – but the chance for them to be a part of such a wonderful, unique event made it well worth the wait.

The trip started with me arriving in Bangkok a day ahead of the team so I could be there to greet them at the airport when they landed early the morning of Sunday April 16th. As I alluded to in my previous post, our meeting – and the trip itself – almost didn’t happen due to extreme last-minute scrambling to secure the players’ visas to enter Thailand. Thanks to heroic efforts by my ICRC colleagues in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (site of the nearest Thai embassy to Kabul), we managed to secure the visas at the last possible minute. We had been told by authorities in the final days that there was no way the visas would be issued in time, in spite of our having initiated the process well in advance, but refused to concede until the final bell sounded. I spent a few sleepless nights in the week leading up to the camp dreading having to deliver the news to the players that, once again, they would have to wait for their first trip abroad due to circumstances completely outside their control. Thankfully – for them and for me – it didn’t come to that.

So I found myself waiting outside customs with Michael Glowacki – director of the upcoming documentary, The League of Afghanistan (who lives full time in Bangkok) – to see the faces of the players appear. Once they finally rounded the corner and came into view, they lit up with excitement to see us. I could feel the weeks of stress melt away in an instant. It was really happening!

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The team gathers upon arrival with me, Michael, and our handmade Dari welcome sign (aforementioned excitement tempered just slightly by their first experience with jet lag)

Adding to the moment was the fact that the team from India – a few of whom I’d had the pleasure of teaching when I conducted a training camp in Chennai in the fall of 2015 – had landed just shortly before the Afghans. After reuniting with both groups and introducing them to each other, we all piled into buses and drove the hour-plus south to Chon Buri, site of the training camp.

The camp kicked off the following morning, with all the participating players – 64 in total from 10 different countries – gathering at the gymnasium. The two coaches running the camp – Irene Sloof from the Netherlands and Ines Lopez from Portugal – had their work cut out for them with such a huge group of players, their instructions being translated into a half-dozen languages, a single court, and no air conditioning during Thailand’s hottest time of the year. Both able-bodied players themselves as well as longtime wheelchair basketball coaches, Irene and Ines handled the situation perfectly. They quickly separated the teams into three groups based on skill and experience in order to make numbers and teaching levels a bit more manageable, and plowed forward, challenging the players (and translators) to keep up. They kept every exercise fun and engaging, but never let the players forget that training with excellent technique and focus was the only way to improve.

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Coach Irene teaches the Afghans how to attack with a numbers mismatch (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

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Coach Ines drills Nadia of Afghanistan (left) and Chanty of Cambodia on one-on-one defensive technique (photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

The Afghans were placed in a group with players from Cambodia (several of whom I was also happily reuniting with after having coached them back in 2013 and 2014) and Nepal, and made fast friends with their group mates, language barrier or no. Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the whole experience was seeing these players from so many different cultural backgrounds learning each other’s names, snapping group photos at every opportunity, and laughing together as they learned. As Don Perriman, Secretary General of the IWBF Asian-Oceania zone and the primary driver of this camp’s organization, said so eloquently, “If we can evaluate a program on the smile factor alone, this camp has been a raging success.”

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Team Afghanistan with members of the teams from Japan, Nepal, and Indonesia

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Nadia gets into a selfie with the Cambodian team (Photo by Sieng Sokchan)

In basketball terms, the Afghan women acquitted themselves very well at the camp. I was given unsolicited compliments from the coaches and camp organizers – as well as coaches of other teams in attendance – on the Afghan players’ skills and grasp of the game. Those meant a lot coming from such knowledgeable sources and, if I could possibly be any prouder of this amazing, pioneering group than I already was, that did the trick. I was also encouraged by the growth I saw in the Cambodian and Indian players I’d coached previously. In the years since I taught them in their wheelchair basketball infancy, they’ve developed a great deal as players and as people – I saw competitive instincts coming out in a few of them that I hadn’t even known existed. I hope to have the chance to go back to both countries in the coming year or two and work with them and their compatriots again.

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The full camp crew (Photo by Matthew Wells, IWBF)

One additional note about the Indian team: its youngest player, Poovammal – whom I was meeting for the first time at the camp – took a nasty fall midway through the week, breaking both bones in her forearm and dislocating her wrist. It was a gruesome injury (I saw the x-rays), and she was taken to a nearby hospital to have the arm splinted, wrapped, and put in a sling to immobilize it enough for her to fly home (alone) the following day for surgery. In spite of a devastating end to her first trip overseas, she handled the entire situation with an amazing amount of poise and bravery. She even came to the gym the next morning to say goodbye before going to the airport. I told her she’d be back to 100% in no time and that I looked forward to seeing her new and improved skills the next time we meet.

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Poovammal, small but mighty

After the camp concluded on Friday afternoon, we took the Afghanistan team on an outing to the beach on the Gulf of Thailand. Like the men’s team when it went to Italy in 2014, it was the first time any of the players had seen the sea. I watched as the whole group – even the wheelchair users – crossed the beach as fast as they could move, kicked off their shoes, and waded/wheeled directly into the water. Within a few minutes, the entire team was splashing, swimming, and falling into the gentle waves, fully clothed (in very nice clothing, no less), headscarves and all! It was an amazing scene – one that the Thai beachgoers were utterly fascinated by – and I’ll never forget the cacophony of laughter that went on for well over an hour as the group gloried in their discovery of the sea for the first time.

Due to a transportation-related communication breakdown, we ended up stranded at the beach until late that night, but there are worse places to be stuck for five hours than a Thai beach with a warm evening breeze blowing through the palm trees. Somehow it perfectly completed an epic day and week of new experiences in Chon Buri. One of the players, Mulkara, told me the next morning at breakfast, “Sir, we will remember yesterday forever!”

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Out of the wheelchairs and into the water!

On Saturday, we hired a bus to take the players on a tour of Bangkok before our late-night flight back to Kabul. We spent a couple hours shopping at the giant Weekend Market, an outdoor bazaar with every type of clothing, souvenir, and anything else the players could have wanted to take back to their families. We visited the Temple of the Sleeping Buddha. We ate ice cream. And we capped the day off by meeting up with my great college friends, Justin and Courtney Hill, who moved from the US to Bangkok late last year, for a team dinner at a huge restaurant, Eathai, which is set up like an indoor Thai food market. Justin suggested Eathai because it was arranged in a way that the players could see the types of food they were choosing from, which we hoped might lead to them actually eating some of it.

I’d spent the entire week trying to get the Afghans to try the delicious local cuisine, but without much success. They were content to subsist on white rice, bread, eggs, and juice for most meals, concertedly avoiding anything that looked different than what they’d grown up eating at home. I figured this final meal was a chance for them to finally break through their reticence and try Thai food. They’d be trapped amid dozens of booths offering a huge range of Thai dishes, so they had no choice! At the conclusion of the meal, I took an informal group poll and was shocked to find that nearly everyone really enjoyed their meals. Success! After a long flight back to Kabul, we landed and several nearby players turned to me and said, “Mr. Jess, we already miss the food of Thailand!” I’d like to think they were at least half serious.

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One last team photo in front of the Bangkok skyline (From left: team physiotherapist Shukrullah, Farzana, Sumaya, Mulkara, Kamela, Shabona, Freshta, Nilofar, Nadia, team manager Maimoona, Jamila, Palwasha, coach Tahera)

The minute we got through the airport and outside, the players broke into smiles as they smelled the clear spring air and took in the snow-capped mountain scenery surrounding Kabul. It had been an amazing journey, but it was good to be home.

I’m writing this post on April 15th while flying from Denver to Thailand. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting the Afghanistan women’s national wheelchair basketball team for a one-week player development camp put on by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF) in Chon Buri. I’ve been trying for the past two years to find an opportunity for the Afghan women to wear the colors of their country abroad for the first time. After months of planning and a visa application process for the players that literally came down to the final minute before coming through (we booked all our flights the day before yesterday and the players finally received their visas less than 24 hours before getting on the plane – yikes), it has finally arrived. I’m so excited that the team is going to have this opportunity and am thrilled that I get to share it with them. A few reasons this will be such a landmark event:

  1. The IWBF Asia/Oceania zone is bringing top coaches from around the world to teach female players that are part of developing national programs from all over Asia. It’s an important step in promoting the development of elite wheelchair basketball programs in new countries across the zone, an important focus for the IWBF and a key point of intersection in their work and the ICRC’s.
  2. 10 of the 12 national team players from Afghanistan received permission from their families to attend the camp. While we’ll miss the two who aren’t able to come, it’s amazing to me to see this level of support from so many of the families, many of whom were nervous about the very idea of their girls playing a sport just a few short years ago. I can’t commend them enough for being so progressive and open-minded in allowing the players to break new ground for Afghanistan wheelchair basketball.
  3. I’m so proud of the players themselves for stepping (way) outside their comfort zones to participate in this camp. It is no small thing to travel abroad for the first time, but they all jumped at the chance. I’m looking forward to seeing their impressions of a place as different from Afghanistan as Thailand.
  4. Among the other countries attending (there will be around 60 players in total) are India and Cambodia, two places close to my heart. I coached twice in each country as they were getting their wheelchair basketball programs started, and have fantastic memories of working with the players. It’s been a year and a half since I last visited India and over three years since I last went to Cambodia, so it’s going to be wonderful to reconnect with all the players I worked with early in their development, especially in such a unique, internationally inclusive environment. Getting to see the players from these different countries build friendships with each other is going to be a very special experience for me.
  5. I’ll also have the chance to see many of the wonderful IWBF officials and coaches that I had the chance to get to know when the Afghanistan men’s team competed in Japan in the fall of 2015. I’m thrilled that the Afghan, Indian, and Cambodian women I’ve coached will have the chance to meet and learn from such a knowledgeable, dedicated group of people.

Following the week in Thailand, I’ll accompany the Afghan women back to Kabul, where I’ll spend two weeks holding national tournaments for the country’s men’s and women’s leagues. The IWBF camp participants will come home with a wealth of new knowledge and skills. I’m excited to see them put those to work in competition as well teach them to their teammates at home.

From Kabul, I’ll travel with Alberto Cairo – my partner in developing wheelchair basketball and adaptive sports in Afghanistan – to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. for a week of presentations, meetings with diplomats and other potential stakeholders, and media interviews. There will be a variety of different events during the whirlwind six day trip, but the broad goal in all of them is to promote U.S. support for the ICRC‘s physical rehabilitation work, with a focus on the power sport has shown in promoting achievement and inclusion for people with physical disabilities.

I’ll head from Washington back across the Atlantic for two weeks in Gaza working with Palestinian players and coaches, a trip I look forward to every year. I’ll finish the final leg of my journey in Switzerland, where I’ll engage with my ICRC Headquarters colleagues in Geneva on plans for further developing the ICRC sports program (more news soon to come on that front).

Whew – that’s a lot of ground to cover in seven weeks. It shall be interesting; we’ll see what happens along the way!