Honors student Abraham Hausman-Weiss waits patiently inside an empty court for practice to start. It is 6:30 a.m., and he will begin his long day by pushing himself to the point of exhaustion.
Most students his age dread waking up so early, but this is his only option. Two and a half hours later, dripping sweat and now in need of another night’s rest, he heads out of the gym and says goodbye to his teammates. Hausman-Weiss’ body is tired, but he feels more alive than ever, having just played a sport that has given him a chance to fit in, a chance to find another family.
As an athlete, he is subject to a demanding schedule, but nothing compares to the challenges he has already overcome to be playing in that gym before 7 a.m. Hausman-Weiss, a freshman member of the men’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Alabama, fell in love with the sport while watching a game in first grade. He has been playing ever since through the LakeShore Foundation in Birmingham. He dreams of being a statistician after college, as well as winning a national title with his teammates. These high goals come at the price of balancing a taxing class schedule with his practices, weightlifting sessions and games.
“Wheelchair basketball is kind of a set of metaphors for your life,” Hausmann-Weiss said. “There are things that happen on the court that definitely should translate to what you do in your everyday life. “I think when you want to prove somebody wrong, you do it with your actions and not your words. You do it by showing them what you can do. In sports, if you’re trying too hard to prove yourself, you’re not going to do well, but if you just don’t worry about anything else and play your game on the court, it translates to being yourself in the regular world.”
The University of Alabama’s Adapted Athletics program is home to elite athletes in the sports of wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis. Their national titles come from their dedication and hard work. Rashad Bennett, a sophomore computer science major from Birmingham, is part of the men’s team as well. He has hopes of winning the national title this season and beating a rival team, the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater. “We got really close [to winning it all] last year,” Bennett said. “We finished second, but we added missing pieces that we needed from last year, so we should go in and rock it this year. [Beating Whitewater] is the number one goal right now. We haven’t beat Whitewater in four years.” Bennett has grown close to Hausman- Weiss as well as his other teammates through their tough training and off-court time together. The men’s team has a “brother up” program where a younger and older player get together and hang out at least once a week, which is helpful for freshmen like Hausman-Weiss to get to know his teammates. “It’s like a big family here,” Bennett said. “We have people from all over the world on the men and women’s teams, but we all get along very well. Nobody takes anything personally, and we actually all play together really well. I love playing here.”
Basketball has also given Ryan Jansen an outlet to prove that doctors were wrong when they told him he would not be able to play sports. Jansen, a freshman journalism major from Green Bay, Wisconsin, knew he would not be exactly like the “able-bodied athletes,” but with hard work and focusing on his studies, he could still live the life of a college basketball player. “There’s a lot of things that if you have a disability you don’t have to be motivated for, so people don’t expect you to do much,” Jansen said. “So that was kind of something that opened my eyes [in wheelchair basketball] in that you’re expected to do stuff. You can be accounted for if you play.”
The men and women’s wheelchair basketball teams practice and train in the University’s Student Recreation Center, where many others also go to exercise or play various sports. The courts inside are open to the public, which forces the two teams to practice at early-morning hours, with hopes that pickup games and other gym-goers will not interfere. Fortunately, their time in the SRC is almost up. Earlier this year, the university’s System Board of Trustees approved a $10 million budget for the Adapted Athletics program to build a new facility. It will be completely wheelchair-accessible and the first of its kind in collegiate adapted athletics programs. Hausman-Weiss, Jansen and Bennett are thrilled about the new gym the program is receiving. Jansen said the construction of an adapted athletics facility “flexes Alabama’s muscles” since no other university has a facility dedicated to wheelchair athletes. “I’m really excited about it,” Hausman- Weiss said. “The main thing I’m excited about is the publicity. We’re going to have our own stadium, and it’s going to legitimize our sport a lot more and hopefully it will generate a lot more exposure. In the long run too, on a larger scale, if one of the [top] 10 [wheelchair basketball] colleges in the U.S. is doing this, maybe other colleges will start doing this, and it will continue to promote the legitimacy of wheelchair sports in the entire country.” The new facility will double as a stadium for home wheelchair basketball games and will be accessible to everyone, not just the adapted athletics teams. Construction at the SRC is underway and should take more than a year, but the teams will have a lot to focus on before the completion of their new facility.
The women’s team’s assistant coaches Megan Musselman and Adam Kramer share the same enthusiasm for the new facility as the athletes. Both see it as a way for them to improve on the court and for the program to get more recognition. “It’s going to be great for our athletes just to have their own space to work,” Musselman said. “We’re always trying to put our athletes at the same standard as our able-bodied athletes so this is just one more thing to help us be on an equal level with them.” Freshman women’s team member Sarah Maynard did not want to play wheelchair basketball in college at first. When she got into her senior season in high school, she realized she would miss it, and Alabama’s coaches reached out to her soon after that. Once she saw how supportive the program was at the university, she wanted to be a part of it. “I’ve learned so much about other people and about pushing your limits, teamwork [and] taking care of each other,” Maynard said. “I have been able to meet so many people that I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t gone here and played basketball.”
As much as the wheelchair basketball teams are like a family, they are also highly competitive and produce Paralympic Games-level talent. In the 2016 Paralympics, former and current students as well as a coach in the Alabama Adapted Athletics program made the trip to Rio to compete. Team USA’s women and men’s wheelchair basketball teams won the gold, which featured past Alabama student athletes Stephanie Wheeler, Mackenzie Soldan and Desi Miller on the women’s side and Jared Arambula for the men. Current Alabama student Babsi Grossi won a silver medal in women’s wheelchair basketball while representing Germany. Many of the university’s other representatives in the Paralympics were on Team Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball team, who came away from Rio with a fifth-place finish. Coach Musselman said the members of the wheelchair basketball program who did not go to Rio met up to watch the Paralympics and have continued to work hard at the university while their teammates are abroad. “It’s nice to have that camaraderie,” Musselman said. “I’m a big believer that the bonding that you want to see occur on the court occurs off the court. Being able to have them bond off the court and away from basketball is only going to bring them closer.”
The strong bond of the wheelchair basketball teams not only comes from hard work, but also from the adversity the athletes must overcome to play at the Division I level. The players and coaches deal with any given disability or setback with as much positivity as they can, using them as motivation to defy all odds. “[Wheelchair basketball] has taught me that there’s always a door that will open for you in life,” Bennett said. “[My disability] shut the door on able-bodied sports, but it opened a door to get a scholarship to college, to get a Paralympic opportunity when I’m older, to go overseas and play professionally. [Being disabled] opens up a lot more doors than you think it would.”