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.