September 2016


Last week I traveled to Brazil to represent the ICRC at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero. The purpose of my trip was to take part in the International Paralympic Committee’s Inclusion Summit, a two-day event that is held at each Paralympics with the goal of bringing together organizations and individuals focused on advancing the inclusion agenda for people with physical disabilities, both at the Paralympics itself and in society as a whole. In addition, I would give a presentation on the work I’ve been doing with the ICRC to build the wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and network to establish relationships between the ICRC and potential partners with similar organizational goals. On top of these practical goals, though, I was excited to have the chance to take part in my second consecutive Summer Paralympics, connect with many colleagues and friends in the international wheelchair basketball community, soak in the amazing atmosphere of the Games and, of course, take in as many games as I could squeeze in around a full meeting schedule.

I was very curious to see how the Rio Paralympics would stack up against the 2012 London Games, which had been such a revelation in terms of both public promotion and overall popularity. London had filled its Olympic venues for all the Paralympic events (the Paralympics take place two weeks after the Olympics in the same city and are held in all the same facilities) and, with live coverage of the games on a major British TV channel and billboards, posters, and other promotions for the Games blanketing the city, the visibility of the Paralympics was taken to a previously inconceivable level. It was an incredibly high bar for Rio and all future Paralympics to meet.

There were significant (and legitimate) concerns immediately before the 2016 Games began. Brazil announced to the media just over a week before the opening ceremonies that it had run out of budget and was unsure if it would be able to fund the promised travel expenses for athletes from smaller nations without the financial wherewithal to send the athletes themselves. There had been widespread complaints from Olympians about the quality of the accommodations at the Athletes Village. Petty crime had been a persistent problem during the Olympics. And ticket sales for Paralympic events were much lower than expected in the days leading up to the Games; far behind where London had been.

Thankfully, just under the wire, the Rio Paralympic Organizing Committee came through and made it all work. The atmosphere in the city was infected by the Games, there were visible promotions everywhere, and Rio’s public services had been updated to ensure those with physical disabilities could effectively navigate the distances between the giant city’s various tourist neighborhoods and the area where the Olympic Park was located. The Park itself was packed with throngs of good-natured fans – both Brazilian and foreign – who had snapped up nearly every available ticket once the Organizing Committee decided to lower prices across the board, and armies of colorful-shirted Paralympics volunteers were everywhere to ensure things ran as smoothly as possible. It may not have quite reached the perfection of the London Paralympics, but Rio acquitted itself extremely well, especially given its myriad challenges going into the start of the Games.

The Inclusion Summit, which I had participated in during the London Games as well, was a valuable opportunity to hear presentations on the ways Brazil had prepared to be a fully-inclusive Olympic and Paralympic host country, reflections on the various successes and lessons-learned by London in 2012, and perspectives on various philosophies and strategies for promoting inclusion in the sporting and professional worlds. The presentation that made the most impact on me was by a young athlete named Luis Herazo, a javelin thrower with cerebral palsy from a tiny village in Columbia. He told his personal story of growing up as a relative outcast in his community, mocked and brushed aside in equal parts during his childhood. As a young teenager, Luis was introduced to adaptive sports by a local track and field coach. He couldn’t believe sport was something that could be available to someone like him, but he took to it immediately. In just a few short years, he began to excel as a javelin thrower and sprinter and, in 2016, became the first person from his district to ever win a gold medal at the Columbian national para games. Suddenly he was transformed from an afterthought in his society – and even in his own family – to a celebrity who was known and lauded throughout his home town. Every time visitors come to his family’s home, the first thing his father does is show them the room displaying Luis’s trophies, medals, and ribbons. It’s a story that mirrors that of so many of the athletes with whom I’ve been able to work in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Palestine, and India over the past several years, but one that never ceases to inspire.

The day after the Inclusion Summit, I was invited to give a presentation at the House of Switzerland – a temporary enclave set near Copa Cabana Beach that allowed locals to experience Swiss culture and history. The Swiss Embassy gave the ICRC its own presence at the House, which included a room full of large, high-resolution photos of the organization’s recent move to support sport in the nations in which it works. It was amazing for me to roll into the room and see posters of so many athletes I’ve coached all captured in one place. There was even a photo of me coaching players in New Delhi, India. It made me feel proud and nostalgic at the same time. It also made me miss some of the athletes I haven’t seen in several years.

I delivered my presentation through an interpreter since the majority of the audience were Portuguese speakers. I’ve coached through interpreters in all the places where I’ve worked, but I’d never given a speech with one, and it was a bit challenging at first since the translation was happening simultaneously with my speaking – both of us using microphones – so I had to figure out the pacing of telling the story, ensure I wasn’t getting too far ahead for the interpreter and audience to keep up, and try not to confuse myself in the process. We quickly hit our stride, though, and the audience was great. Once I finished the presentation, I spent the next 30 minutes answering a fantastic bunch of insightful questions from nearly every member of the audience. I’d given similar presentations in a few different venues over the past year, but I’d never presented to a general audience with no specific tie to the subject matter – it was really fun to interact with the Brazilian public in that way. Many thanks to the House of Switzerland and the ICRC for inviting me to do it!

Each day I was in Rio, I spent the whole day in presentations and meetings, then took a taxi with my Brazilian ICRC colleague, Flavio, to the Olympic Park to catch the last wheelchair basketball game or two of the night. Before our first game – the men’s semifinal between the U.S. and Turkey – Flavio and I had to track down our accreditation badges, graciously provided by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), which would allow us access to all the games as well as the “backstage” areas of the arena designated for players, teams, and officials. Unfortunately, the accreditation office with the badges had closed minutes before we arrived. However, we met two wonderful volunteers – one Brazilian and one British – who helped us get into the arena through back channels so we wouldn’t miss the USA game. While we were outside waiting for one of the volunteers to plead our case with a security guard, sitting in a dark corner in the massive expanse of the Olympic Park, I heard from behind me an Italian-accented voice call out my name. It was the wonderful Silvia Galimberti – the communications director of Italy’s wheelchair basketball champions, Briantea84. Sylvia was the person primarily responsible for inviting me, Alberto Cairo, and the Afghanistan men’s national team to Italy in 2014 to play our first games outside Afghanistan. Silvia has an irrepressibly positive personality and it was such an unexpected pleasure to reconnect with her so far from where we’d met. We shared a rooting interest in that night’s game, as U.S. player, Brian Bell, is the star of Silvia’s Briantea84 team during the Italian league season.

Getting back to the Games themselves, there were some major surprises during this Paralympic wheelchair basketball tournament, particularly on the men’s side. Turkey and Spain both made the semi-finals (against the U.S. and Great Britain, respectively), which was a big leap forward for both countries. The men’s teams from Australia and Canada had won all the gold medals in the past four Paralympics and, with Britain and the US, had comprised the medal competitors in nearly every Games during that time. Spain and Turkey had been rapidly developing both in their national professional leagues and in their international success the last several years, and making the medal rounds of the Paralympics was a culmination of that growth. Behind stifling defense and an innovative “small-ball” lineup featuring unbelievable team speed, the U.S. overwhelmed Turkey to make the gold medal game. In another surprise in a tournament full of them, the ascendant Spanish team upset Great Britain to set up a gold medal matchup with the Americans.

The following night, I had one of my absolute highlights of the week when I watched the women’s gold medal wheelchair basketball game between the U.S. and defending Paralympic gold medalists Germany. The U.S. team included two players I’ve spent the last two years coaching for the Denver Lady Rolling Nuggets – Christina Schwab and Natalie Schneider. I was so excited to see them play at the Paralympic level, especially in the championship game. Christina had won two Paralympic gold medals previously (and was a track & field racer in London after taking a few years off from basketball) and Natalie had won one Paralympic gold during several years as a national team member. The U.S. was trying to come back from a disappointing fourth place finish in 2012. Having practiced against them a couple times last year as they prepared for the North American Paralympic qualifying tournament, I knew how talented the team was and how focused they would be behind the coaching of Stephanie Wheeler, another multiple gold medalist as a player before moving into coaching full time. True to form, the U.S. women came out with complete determination. Behind an amazing 33 point, 8 rebound, 6 assist performance from star guard Becca Murray, the U.S. controlled the game from the outset and won by a comfortable 17 point margin to take home the gold. I felt so lucky to be able to watch my countrywomen, including Christina and Natalie, win the ultimate prize in our sport.

The next evening, the wheelchair basketball tournament concluded with the U.S. vs. Spain men’s gold medal game. While I didn’t have any players I had the same close relationships with as I did with the women’s team, it was still wonderful to watch the U.S. men represent the country with their exciting, fast-paced style. While the game was a bit closer than the women’s through the first half, the U.S. used a balanced defense-focused attack to gradually wear down the Spaniards, then broke the game open behind some incredible clutch three point shooting. In the end, the U.S. won by 16 points, securing our second gold – the first time the U.S. men and women had both won wheelchair basketball Paralympic gold medals in 28 years. It was also the first time the U.S. men and women swept the basketball gold medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics. Amazing.

One final anecdote from the Games that was fleeting but very impactful for me – as I arrived at the stadium for the men’s gold medal game and came in through the player’s entrance, I ran into Brad Ness, the captain of the Australian men’s team. I first met Brad back in October when I coached Afghanistan in the Asia Paralympic Qualifying Tournament in Japan, which Australia ended up winning to earn its spot in Rio. Brad came up to me in the early days of the tournament and introduced himself, offering to sit down with the Afghans and talk to them about the way the Australians had developed a positive, winning team culture. He also invited us to join an otherwise closed Team Australia practice so the Afghans could get an impression of how an elite team prepares for its games. Both experiences were invaluable to our growth, and Brad subsequently offered that anytime I ever needed help of any kind with spreading the game in Afghanistan or elsewhere, all I needed to do was give him a call. It was an incredible series of gestures on Brad’s part, and really set him apart in my mind as a global ambassador of the game.

When I saw Brad in Rio, however, something was different. Though he greeted me warmly when we saw each other, he looked completely shocked and dismayed. I knew Australia would have just finished the 5th place game against Brazil – itself a bit of a disappointment because Australia was so accustomed to playing for a gold medal in every Paralympics, but a game everyone expected the Aussies to win very easily. I asked Brad how the game went, and he responded, “Mate… I had a 17 footer to win it at the buzzer and I blew it.” This was Brad’s 5th Paralympics. He has been instrumental in Australia’s dominance and has won a gold and two silver Paralympic medals. In spite of his good-natured personality off the court, he is a fierce competitor on it. I couldn’t imagine how gutting it must be for him to have his team finish out of the medals and then miss the potential game winning shot to end the final game.

I tried my best to say something consoling, knowing nothing I said could ease the sting so soon after a loss. As we shook hands and started to go our separate ways, though, Brad turned and said, “Hey, Jess, you’re doing some really amazing work. I want you to tell the Afghanistan guys that I was really impressed with them in Japan. That was some good basketball they played, and I can tell they’re right on the verge of having everything click and becoming the kind of winning team they want to be. Really, any time you guys could use my help, I’m there.” I can’t properly express how much it meant for a guy going through what Brad was at that moment to step outside his own disappointment and take the time to say that. I also can’t think of a better personification of the Olympic/Paralympic spirit. I head back to Afghanistan in October, and I’ll definitely pass along Brad’s message. It will mean the world to the players.

Thank you to the city of Rio de Janiero and all the colleagues, players, and friends I reconnected with or was able to meet for the first time. It was a great, if all too brief, Paralympic experience.

 

Early in August, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Toronto learning from the incredible group of coaches, players, and staff that make up Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Mike Frogley, formerly the head coach of the University of Illinois and a legendary wheelchair basketball coach and innovator, was an early mentor in my coaching career. I spent several days at U of I back in 2011 studying his teaching techniques as I was first dipping my toe into coaching in Afghanistan; it was an experience that contributed hugely to my moving into coaching and sport program development as a full time career.

Coach Frogley (known by everyone simply as “Frog”) is now the head of the Wheelchair Basketball Canada National Academy. Created in 2013, the Academy is the world’s first full-time, year-round, daily training environment for high performance wheelchair basketball athletes. Though it had been several years since we’d last seen each other, Frog, who has continued to follow the progress of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball program from afar, invited me to come to the Academy to spend some time with the Team Canada men’s and women’s teams as they went through their final preparations for the Summer Paralympics, taking place from September 7th-18th in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Always looking for ways to improve my knowledge and skills as a coach, I jumped at the chance.

Coaching

I knew going into the experience that I’d have the chance to learn from some of the best wheelchair basketball minds in the world during my time in Canada, but I assumed that learning would be primarily from the perspective of a passive observer trying to internalize as much information as possible without interrupting the flow of the program’s training camp. I should have known that Frog would never allow me to take such a predictable approach. My first morning there, he asked if I would be up for coaching the Black Aces – a team of extremely talented players from around Canada that was formed to give the men’s national team the best possible competition in its preparation for international tournaments (the Red Aces play a similar role with the women’s team). I’ve built up a decent amount of coaching experience working with players in the various developing countries where I’ve helped to start programs, and have had the honor to coach some world class individual players with the men’s and women’s Rolling Nuggets teams in Colorado the past three years, but I’d never coached a full group of players at this high a level, not to mention against the defending Paralympic gold medalists from the Canadian men’s team. Beyond that, I didn’t even know any of their names! But if Frog had the confidence that I could handle the job, who was I to argue?

The experience turned out to be fantastic. The Black Aces are a terrific group and an amazingly athletic, intelligent team. They were very patient with me as I stumbled over their names during timeouts during that first game. What I didn’t learn until later was that several of the Aces aren’t even disabled. They’re able-bodied players who have spent years competing as part of local wheelchair basketball club teams in their home cities alongside disabled teammates. They were so impressive in their wheelchairs that I never would have known had someone not told me.

I’d played against a few able-bodied players back in the early years of my playing career. I was still a fairly new player with the Portland Wheelblazers when we traveled north to Vancouver, B.C. to play the team there in 2003. It’s been a common model for Canadian teams for a while. Such a massive country with a very diffuse population meant teams needed more bodies in order to have enough players for practices and games, so they opened up wheelchair basketball to anyone who was interested in playing. Several countries have since adopted this concept, with each team being allowed a limited number of able-bodied players. It has created an ongoing debate about whether allowing able-bodied players to join wheelchair basketball teams should be a standard practice everywhere. Both sides of the argument make compelling points:

One side contends that allowing non-disabled athletes to play would potentially reduce the number of opportunities for disabled athletes – the ones for which wheelchair basketball was originally created – and could sully the insular environment that has been created to ensure the game remains pure.

The other says that the only way for the game to gain the kind of broad appeal it deserves – and reach the highest possible level of play – is to allow the best athletes to compete with and against each other, whether they are physically disabled or not. It also points to the fundamental idea of inclusion of people with disabilities – and how the only way that can be promoted to its fullest extent is if everyone is able to be included in the sport.

One thing that was made clear to me in working with the Black Aces was that there is fundamentally no physical difference between an able-bodied player and a minimally disabled player once they are in basketball wheelchairs and competing on the court. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for over 15 years and coaching it for seven, and I had no idea four of the players I was coaching were any different than the rest of the high-classification players on the court. When they succeeded, it was due to their skill and intelligence, not any unfair physical advantage. When they failed, it was because their opponents on the Canadian national team – all of whom were disabled – pushed harder or made better physical moves and mental decisions.

The other thing that became clear to me over the course of the week, as I got to know the players on the Black Aces better, was that the able-bodied players were every bit as passionate and dedicated to the game of wheelchair basketball as the rest of us. It was strange to realize that, as a group of people that is accustomed to being marginalized in our societies and is constantly pushing for acceptance as equals, our disabled community is, in this particular case, promoting a similar kind of discrimination by keeping these athletes from having the opportunity to play their chosen sport at the highest level. In Canada and a few other countries, at least there is integration between able-bodied and disabled players at the local level. In the U.S, there is no opportunity for non-disabled players to compete in wheelchair basketball at all.* From my perspective, not allowing skilled, committed athletes to join our game is an anachronistic practice that I hope to see fade away in the near future.

Learning

In addition to the invaluable practical experience I got coaching the Black and Red Aces against the Canadian men’s and women’s teams, I also had tons of opportunity to dialogue with and pick the brains of the coaching and technical staff of Canada Wheelchair Basketball. Each person, from the head coaches of the teams to the youngest intern, had knowledge that I knew would help me immeasurably in my ongoing development as a coach and program developer. In addition, the players themselves have a massive collective knowledge base, from which I gleaned as much as I possibly could in both game environments and in strategy sessions. Everyone was so generous with their time, and I tried to have individual conversations with as many people from around the program as possible in order to learn from each of their unique perspectives.

While I can’t say enough to thank everyone for welcoming me into their circle during such an important training environment, I have to give a special thank you to Frog. Not only did he invite me to be a part of this experience for no other reason than a desire to see wheelchair basketball spread around the world as effectively as possible, but he carved out hours each day to sit down with me and explain all aspects of their player and team development approaches, how they’re using analytics and game video in new and innovative ways, how they plan practices over extended time frames, and how they prepare their players for tournaments like the Paralympics. I could not have asked for a richer, more impactful learning environment than the one he provided.

Teaching

The one thing Frog asked of me in exchange for the phenomenal growth opportunity he and his program were providing was that I give a presentation to the men’s and women’s national teams, the Red and Black Aces, and all the staff and coaches about my experiences coaching in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He is constantly looking for ways to expand the basketball education they are delivering through the Academy and national team programs to encompass larger concepts, including the ways the members of the program can use basketball to make an impact off the court as well as on it.

I was honored to be asked to give the talk, and spent about an hour giving an overview of the story of my first trip to Afghanistan in 2009 all the way up to the Afghanistan men’s national team competing in the Paralympic Qualifying Tournament for Asia last October. I hoped the story and photos I shared would strike a chord with at least a few of the 50 or so people in the room and help them see similar possibilities for their own futures. I had no idea how broadly that message would resonate, though, and was amazed to see several people (who will remain nameless to protect their tough athlete reputations) with tears in their eyes by the end of the talk. Once I concluded and answered some questions, there was immediately a line of players wanting to talk to me and find out how they could help with the initiative I’m building with the ICRC. One of the coaches, Paul Bowes, with whom I had the pleasure of coaching the Black and Red Aces, told me afterward that he had never seen the group of players that focused for that long without a single person checking their phones, dozing off, or losing attention in any way. What a compliment.

I’ve hoped for several years that eventually the ICRC sports program for people with physical disabilities would grow to the point that we would be able to engage other coaches in bringing wheelchair basketball and other sports to developing countries dealing with conflict around the world. Knowing that such a knowledgeable group as Wheelchair Basketball Canada is be willing to be a part its evolution is unbelievably exciting.

Talking

The day before I came home, I had a chance to meet up with two very good friends, Pat and Anna Anderson, and their one-year-old son, Stanley. We went out to breakfast and, while sitting at a table near the entrance, a man walked into the restaurant, looked over, and said to me, “Salam alaikum. Khoubasten?” (“Peace be with you. How are you?”) in Dari, the primary language in Afghanistan. I instinctively responded in the same language, “I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” before stopping and saying, in English, “Wait a second… how did you know I’d understand that??” He smiled and pointed to my shirt, which had a small Afghanistan flag on the chest. We introduced ourselves – he had moved to Canada years before from Kabul – and he asked why I was wearing the shirt. When I told him I coach wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan, he could hardly believe it. He was elated to hear about the program and wished me and the players there great luck in our future endeavors.

One last fun experience I had just before leaving was talking with Pat for the first episode of a wheelchair basketball-focused podcast he’s planning to launch soon. Pat played for the Canadian national team for many years, winning three gold medals, but retired following the 2012 London Paralympics. He’s still a great ambassador and advocate for the game, and his podcast should be a great mechanism through which to engender discussion on important topics and bring further awareness of the game to the broader public. I don’t know exactly when the first episode will be available, but I’ll be sure to post it here once it is.

In about 2 weeks, I’ll be flying down to Rio to represent the ICRC at the last few days of the Paralympics, during which I’ll be attending a summit focused on continuing to use sport as a lever through which to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, as well as giving a similar talk to the one I did in Toronto. I’ll also have the chance to watch a couple of Team USA players I’ve coached with the Nuggets (go Christina and Natalie!) as well as see my new friends from Canada compete for men’s and women’s medals. Good luck to all!

 

 

 

 

 

* The one exception in the US is in the collegiate division, where a recently-adopted rule allows newly-formed collegiate teams to roster able-bodied players until they have a chance to develop their program fully enough to have an entire team of disabled players.