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Wheelchair Athletes Challenge UT Community

Published: November 15, 2006
Paul Schulte, 25, raced atop the asphalt at McNiff Courts, weaving through UT students who dared defend. One arm dribbled while the other propelled his wheelchair, and the gold-medal athlete pierced the lane before delivering a deft pass for an easy bucket.

With eyes closed, the Push America Empathy Basketball Tournament on Nov. 10 might have seemed like any other Friday night pickup game – laughter, trash talk, swishes and clanks. But the students who strapped into lightweight titanium wheelchairs were able to peek into the lives of the disabled athletes challenging them and gain new respect.


“Wow, we’re going to lose,” one student said after Schulte, 2006 National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championship MVP, was introduced along with five other veteran wheelchair athletes who live in Tampa Bay.


And lose they did. “Yo dog, it’s 18-2!” said freshman Joe Mercado while doing his best to wheel a fast break during a five-on-five game. “That’s not good!”


Out of the evening’s six 10-minute games, only two UT teams of volunteer participants managed to score a solitary bucket. And while the scoreboard had more zeroes than a K-Fed concert, the students were seldom without smiles.


“It was beyond amazing,” said Mercado after his team lost 30-2. “It’s a different story, man. If you’re running and playing basketball, it’s so much easier. It becomes a whole new world trying to play basketball in a wheelchair. But it’s so much fun, man. These guys are real cool guys. They showed us a real good time today.”


Even while seated, 6’5” disabled athlete Jason Van Beek, 34, towered over his wheelchair opponents. After contracting Guillen Barre Syndrome when nine, he was paralyzed from the neck down for more than a year. Through therapy, he has regained limited mobility and relishes sports competition. Like Schulte, he lives in Bradenton and plays for the national champion Dallas Mavericks wheelchair basketball team.


“It’s fun to expose people to the sport, and let them see how difficult it is to actually move the chair around and play at the same time,” said Van Beek. “It’s kind of neat to see the respect they get after they’ve played.”


The on-campus tournament, sponsored by UT’s Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, was intended, said organizers, as an exhibition that might broaden perspectives. Van Beek explained that games between two disabled teams, in comparison to the UT event, can be quite physical and competitive.


“Typically, there’s a lot more chair contact and hitting,” said Van Beek. “All the chairs are banging together, breaking parts and guys are flying out of their chairs.”


Schulte, a design engineer for a sport wheelchair company, said that the 2005 movie Murderball had helped bring greater recognition to disabled athletes like him. With arms the size of tree limbs, Schulte was modest about his accomplishments, which include three national championships, two world championships and an ESPY award nomination.


Schulte said that his interest was not to run up the scoreboard, but to have fun and to perhaps deliver a message to the participants and spectators.


“Just because an individual has an adversity or a disability, definitely doesn’t mean that their life is over,” said Schulte. “And so I hope that there’s a sense of empathy to realize what some folks go through on a day-to-day basis, but also an appreciation for how competitive disabled sports can be.”


Senior Blake Boehringer, a digital arts major who played two years on UT’s basketball team, had worked up a sweat after playing on the Sigma Phi Epsilon team. He said that he had tremendous respect for the disabled athletes.


“They’re present-day heroes,” said Boehringer. “Just because something tragic has happened to them, they don’t give up. They keep going, and they strive for what they want to do.”


After each game, many students stayed seated when joking with the wheelchair veterans, who kindly consoled their opponents.


“Hey, thanks for letting us play,” said one student while shaking hands and rolling away.