Wheelchair athletes take their sport in stride

They've battled and overcome so much in their young lives.

Serious diseases, like cancer. Problems that were present at birth, ranging from spina bifada to cerebral palsy. Crippling injuries.

It's no surprise then, after watching these group of young athletes who have accomplished so much in a brief time, to see the utter zeal they bring to the sport of wheelchair basketball.

The Junior Northern Wheelchair Basketball Conference Tournament was held Saturday and Sunday in the gymnasiums of Vermillion High School. The event attracted varsity and prep teams from Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with athletes ranging in age in from 18 to younger than 12 years old.

Among the young men and women competing in the event was Vermillion's own Dylan Fischbach.

The tournament originally had been scheduled in Sioux Falls, but when plans for that city to host the event fell through, Dylan's parents, Bruce and Kelly Fischbach, checked to see if Vermillion's school facilities would be available.

The response from local school officials was simple: No problem.

"We just booked it in, and everyone said they could come to Vermillion to participate," Kelly said. "We got a lot of good compliments on how nice and clean everything was, and how nice the bleachers and the gyms are. People were very impressed, and it really worked out perfectly."

The Vermillion High School facilities became the weekend playground of the Courage Center Junior Rolling Timberwolves, the Courage Center Junior Rolling Gophers and the Courage Center Rolling Rowdies, all of Minneapolis, MN. They were joined by the Junior Sioux Wheelers of Sioux Falls, two squads of the Wheelin Wizards from Milwaukee, WI, two varsity teams and one prep team of the Nebraska Red Dawgs of Omaha, NE, and the Mad City Badgers of Madison, WI.

"We had 150 players and coaches," Kelly said, "and everybody except for the Sioux Falls team stayed here." The teams from Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin all took up temporary residence in Vermillion motels at the end of each day's competition.

"It brought quite a bit of business to Vermillion," she said. "I know all of the team members and their families went out to eat at least a couple times each day here in town, so it was really good for Vermillion."

The caliber of Saturday's and Sunday's competitions also added a bit of prestige to the Vermillion  community. The Rolling Timberwolves are two-time defending national champions, who this year have yet to be beaten by a junior team. They have qualified for national competition in Denver, scheduled April 7-11.

The Wheelin Wizards were rated sixth coming in to the tournament in Vermillion, but that status may changed, because they were defeated by the ninth-rated Red Dawgs.

"We had already qualified (for the nationals)," Kelly said of her son's team, the Red Dawgs. "We qualified when we went to Nashville in December."

Overall, six of the teams that competed in Vermillion last weekend have qualified for the national tournament – the Timberwolves, both the "A" and "B" squads of the Red Dawgs, the "A" squad of the Wheelin Wizards, the Rolling Gophers, and the Badgers.

The young athletes who participated in the weekend tournament make their sport seem easy. The rules are nearly identical to conventional basketball; what is impressive, however, is the ability for the participants to drive, shoot, and rebound from a sitting position, controlling both the basketball and the specially-built wheelchairs that propel them up and down the court.

"You dribble, just like regular basketball. You can make two pushes (of the wheel) and then you have to dribble again," Kelly said. "There is no double dribble, so you can dribble, stop, and if you have to, you can dribble again. But you get called for traveling if you push more than twice without dribbling, and that's basically the only difference."

An additional challenge not faced by prep basketball players in South Dakota is a 35-second shot clock.

Dylan, 14,  began playing wheelchair basketball when he was 9 years old. He is finishing up his sixth season as an active participant in the sport.

People in the Vermillion area have grown somewhat familiar with the Nebraska Red Dawg. Over the years, the team has played demonstration games during halftime of Coyote basketball games in the DakotaDome.

That style of play is much gentler than the competitive action that took place this past weekend in the VHS gym. The action is much more physical; the thick steel frames of the specially-designed wheelchairs are reinforced for a reason – it's not uncommon for opponents to crash into each other as they chase after a loose ball, or battle for a rebound.

And, as spectators learned, tipping over on the hard playing floor is more the rule rather than the exception.

The young athletes take it in all in stride, using their arms to push themselves back on two wheels and back into the game.

"This isn't a timid little game," Kelly said, noting a time during one of Saturday's contests when four athletes tipped over in the heat of the competition – all at the same time. "All of these kids are tremendous athletes when you think what they've overcome just to get there.

"The camaraderie of these young people is just something else," she said. "They're really going at it and competing on the floor, but off the floor, they're the best of friends. They all go to camps together in the summer and they hang out."

The sportsmanship among wheelchair basketball athletes often surpasses what one regularly sees during a traditional game of hoops with fully able-bodied athletes.

"They might dump somebody over, and some kids can get their wheelchairs back up by themselves," Kelly said. "Once play stops, it's not unusual for somebody from the opposing team to wheel over and help a competitor so that he or she can get their chair back up. You don't see that kind of thing usually in a regular Tanager game – if you get knocked down, you usually have to get back up by yourself. It really is impressive."

The hand of a wheelchair basketball athlete are quickly blackened, once play begins, from the hard dark rubber wheels of their chairs. Nearly every athlete plays with no hand protection so that they can better control the basketball, and in the course of a two-day tournament, participants' hand soon covered with blisters.

"They don't even use bandaids," Kelly said. "They rip their hands into blisters and they just slap some tape on it and away they go. It really shows how tough and determined they are."

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