[Gabby Roberts-Winter, Picture from Wheelchair Basketball Canada]
The Canadian Women's U25 Wheelchair Basketball Team is busy gearing up to host the first ever U25 Wheelchair Basketball tournament. The tournament, the first international tournament held in Canada for a women's wheelchair basketball team, will be hosted in St. Catharines, Ontario at Brock University from July 15-21. I took some time this morning to interview two members of Canada's U25 team about the upcoming tournament, player Gabby Roberts-Winter from Saskatchewan and head coach Michael Broughton of Toronto.
Michael Broughton became involved with wheelchair sports at a young age. He grew up spending a lot of time in a facility for the disabled where his mother was a special needs teacher. She thought that it was important to expose her son to individuals with disabilities and encouraged him to volunteer at an early age. He soon began playing wheelchair basketball as an able-bodied athlete. He played wheelchair basketball competitively in Canada for many years before he made the shift into coaching. He ended up coaching the U25 Women's National Team, and leaving the Men's National Team program, when Bill Johnson became the head coach of the Women's National Team. Bill and Michael worked well together and it seemed best for the women's program in Canada is Bill and Michael could work closely together to groom the U25 women's team in similar systems and refine the skills needed for the senior women's team.
Gabby Roberts-Winter was born in June 1990 and started playing wheelchair basketball in 2007. Wheelchair basketball was the first wheelchair sport that Gabby tried and she quickly fell in love with it. 2011 was her first year in the Canadian National Team Program. When not with the U25 team she trains and competes with the Regina Paratroopers. She was discovered and invited to come to a national team camp at a training camp in Winnipeg. She is one of three athletes on the team from the sparsely populated province of Saskatchewan. She is currently studying at the University of Regina.
Gabby, Michael and the rest of the Canadian Women's U25 team has been training hard for the upcoming tournament since January 2011. In January Michael helped host a joint selection camp for women's basketball players in Canada. The camp was used to select both the U25 team as well as the Senior Women's National Team. "We thought it would be the best to have both camps at once," Michael said in an interview this morning. "It would allow the girls that are under 25 to try out for both the U25 team and the senior team at the same time. We have three athletes that are on both teams." The camp was also designed to expose the younger athletes to high level competition and training at a young age.
The athletes at the selection camp in January were invited from regional Jamborees where athletes from the east and the west were identified and given feedback. These camps are important because, like most sports, it allows the national team coaches to get to see athletes they otherwise may miss if they did not happen to see them play at the club level.
Gabby and Michael both spoke highly about the training opportunities leading up to the U25 Championship. Michael set up three major training events for the team. They travelled to Arizona for games against top level American Collegiate teams including the University of Arizona and the University of Alabama. "We played close games against the University of Arizona, winning one game and losing one," Gabby said. "Against the University of Alabama, the best United States Collegiate program we had a tougher time but took it as a great learning experience."
The team recently returned from their final training tournament, the Artland Open, in Germany where they won gold. They defeated the same Germany team that they will face in pool action at the U25 tournament. They also played matches against Spain, a local German team and had a close game with the senior women's team from the Netherlands (which they lost by 1 point).
As with other national teams in Canada, the U25 team is only together for part of the year and relies heavily on their athletes to continue their training with regional club teams. Their training schedule is no different than what you would expect from an international level athlete in any other sport. Michael pointed out that all members of the team practice 2-3 times a week and some play up to 6 games on the weekend. The club system is paramount to the player's development as Canada does not have a collegiate league for female wheelchair basketball athletes, unlike in the United States. "Most of our training is done with club teams at home," Gabby commented.
Nonetheless, both Gabby and Michael spoke highly of the training and exhibition matches held leading up to the inaugural U25 tournament. The team is well prepared and has the tools required to do well. When asked what the team's prospects were at the U25 tournament, who the favourites coming into the tournament were and whether they could win a medal Michael replied:
Now that is the million dollar question. The United States team, with an intercollegiate program behind them, should be strong. The Great Britain team has been turning heads on an international stage. The Aussies have a strong senior program so we expect them to have a strong team as well. Both Germany and Japan are good teams. I think that our chances are as good as anyone if we play our game and play solid. We have a good chance [at reaching the podium] and have had some success leading up to the tournament.
Canada also has a unique national competition structure for wheelchair basketball that may give its athletes some advantage. Unlike in international competitions, Canada regularly allows able bodied athletes to compete in wheelchair basketball competitions. Michael commented that "in some areas we simply do not have the population to run a wheelchair basketball league without able bodied athletes. This is not the case internationally where able bodied athletes are not allowed to compete. I think that the addition of these athletes [in Canada] provides great competition for our wheelchair athletes." It also gives able bodied athletes a chance to appreciate just how difficult it is to play basketball in a wheelchair. In international competition, wheelchair basketball is currently limited to classified athletes that are unable to play conventional basketball due to injury or other physical impairment.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with wheelchair basketball, like I was before a quick lesson from Michael, here is a little primer on the equipment and the rules. Each athlete in a wheelchair basketball game has a customized chair to help them compete to the best of their ability, with a different variety of straps and bindings allowing them to perform to their best ability, Michael explained. "There are chest straps, leg straps, boot bindings (similar to a snowboard binding)" said Michael, "The goal for the athlete is to become part of the chair to ensure the most control over the chair as possible."
Wheelchair basketball shares many of the same rules as conventional basketball but there are modifications for travelling (three touches of the wheel) and the double dribble rule is eliminated. Wheelchair basketball athletes play on the same sized court as the traditional game. The game is played very fast and relies on strong passes, ball movement, and chair positioning. Chair positioning is particularly important to the Canadian strategy "If we can win the battle of chair positioning we will win the game" Michael states confidently.
The Canadian team is confident and prepared heading into the first ever U25 Women's Wheelchair Basketball World Championships. They are also excited to compete for a championship in their own country. When asked about the upcoming tournament Gabby stated that she is "So excited that it is finally here and it is in Canada for the first time. To have it be in Canada and to be playing in my own backyard is so exciting. I am so excited to be representing the country." Gabby will be travelling to St. Catharines from Regina with her parents and younger brother. Her dad, Mark Winter, is the coach of her club team, the Regina Paratroopers.
This tournament is a great development for young female athletes and one that I hope to see continue well past its inaugural year in Canada. The athletes competing in this years competition are serious competitors that have committed countless hours to their preparation. They are also well supported by their families and friends "My family and friends know that playing high level basketball was a long time goal of mine," Gabby remarks. "I have a very supportive fan base that has been following my progress on the internet, on facebook. Lots of friends and former teachers."
For those of you that live in the greater Toronto area, I highly encourage you to check out the competition at Brock University from July 15-21. I guarantee that you will be impressed by the quality of competition and the skill level of these remarkable athletes. I will be doing my best to spread the word about the tournament on this website and will be posting scores and game analysis throughout the tournament. I struggle enough playing conventional basketball and appreciate how much of a physical challenge it must be playing such a high paced and physical game from a chair!
How do I Watch the Championship?
For those of you anywhere close to St. Catharines, check out the tournament at Brock University. Ticket information and a full schedule is available online. Tickets are now on sale for the event and can be purchased online. Prices for Tournament passes which grants access to all of the games cost $40 (CDN) if ordered in advance online or $45 at the gates. You can also buy individual session tickets that grant access to two games (either both in the morning or both in the afternoon). Individual session tickets are id="mce_marker"0 online or id="mce_marker"2 at the door. For those that are unable to attend the games in person, the games will be made available online through web streaming.
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