UW-Whitewater started its adaptive sports program in 1973, invested in building a wheelchair basketball program, and has been dominant in the sport ever since. At the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, five of the athletes on the U.S. gold medal-winning men’s wheelchair basketball team were UW-Whitewater alumni. The assistant coach for the Paralympic team is the coach for Whitewater’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. In this series, we are introducing you to some of the players and a coach of Team USA. Christina Schwab was the assistant coach for the team.
Christina Schwab | Whitewater, WI
It’s a neural tube defect, my T12 and L1 vertebrae were left open in utero and it exposed my spinal cord. A lesion in my spine left me with no use of my legs, so I’m a complete spinal cord injury basically from about my hip level down.
In that small town, I was the only kid with a disability, and I was an active kid, always trying to play sports with all my friends that didn’t have disabilities. I played tee-ball in Dane and always loved basketball, but didn’t know about adaptive sports until I was in sixth grade and found out about wheelchair basketball at the Camp Wawbeek Easter Seals camp in Wisconsin Dells.
I had been going to Easter Seals since I was seven or eight. That summer, right before my sixth-grade school year, I had been trying to play basketball, shooting and everything. I had a physical therapist that came to my school once a month to strengthen my arms and everything I needed to use my wheelchair. She knew that I liked playing basketball, so we would shoot.
At the camp, there was a men’s wheelchair basketball team that did a demonstration for all the campers. My counselors said, ‘You gotta get out there,’ because every time there was an opportunity for open rec, I was always out at the court. The other kids would go to the pool or go do arts and crafts and stuff; I just wanted to keep shooting hoops. So this team came and I was shooting around with them and then somehow—and I don’t know how because I was only eleven years old—they got our information and sent my parents a letter that they were starting a junior wheelchair basketball program in Madison. So that fall I started playing basketball with the Mad City Bombers junior wheelchair basketball team.
I was a super-shy kid. I was a wallflower, and I didn’t even want to go to my first practice. My step dad actually took me to my first practice and both my parents said, ‘If you don’t like it, we don’t have to go again. But you have to go.’ I think they knew that I needed this outlet. I loved it and never looked back after that. I was the only girl there. I always wanted to be better than the boys, and I turned out to be pretty good at the sport. So that’s the beginning of my journey with wheelchair basketball.
After that, I learned more about wheelchair sports at UW-Whitewater. In 1993, they started an adaptive (or wheelchair) sports camp, and I went to the very first camp and found out about all the sports—there was track and tennis and water skiing. We did all these things that I didn’t know I could do having a disability. That was the beginning of my journey through adaptive athletics.
I started playing in the women’s division of wheelchair basketball in ninth grade. There was no women’s wheelchair basketball in the state of Wisconsin, but Minnesota had the Lady Timberwolves, a women’s wheelchair basketball team., so we went to Minnesota all the time. The Midwest is kind of a hub for wheelchair basketball. There are teams in Chicago, Minneapolis, and a couple in Wisconsin and Nebraska and Indiana. We traveled all over the place to play wheelchair basketball. I’m really lucky that I grew up in that kind of atmosphere.
As a teenager, I started playing with a women’s team in Minnesota. It happened that Deb Sunderman, a national team member, was on that team. She became the head coach of the women’s wheelchair basketball team for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic games. I was in some developmental camps at a pretty young age and I was an alternate for the team in 1996. I turned sixteen right before the games started, but then Deb also took me on a team that we went to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in a Team USA qualifier for the world championships.
I graduated from Lodi high school in 1998. I’d already been on the national team my senior year of high school, and knew I wanted to continue that path. The University of Illinois had an established women’s wheelchair basketball program, so I attended college there and played on their wheelchair basketball team. In 1998, I went to world championships during the first month of my freshman year of college.
When I was at Illinois, I picked up another competitive sport. I was a dual-sport athlete at the University of Illinois, started pushing track and doing road racing. I studied community health, so I have a bachelor of science in community health at the University of Illinois.
Nearly everything’s the same as with standup basketball. We play with a 10-foot hoop, the courts are regulation size, the three-point line is the same distance, the free-throw line is the same distance—all of that.
When people come and watch wheelchair basketball for the first time, they see how physical it is. I think, at first, they get distracted by the moving wheelchairs. Then when you start to really know the sport, you start to see that the strategies are the same and you’re going to see everything that’s just like you would see in a standup basketball game. We’re just sitting down and have an extra piece of equipment.
People always want to know if we have traveling violations, and yes we do. You can’t touch your wheels more than twice before you have to dribble. Maneuvering a chair while dribbling a basketball takes some time to master. I’m teaching kids how to dribble and push a wheelchair;they can put the ball in their lap, take two pushes and then bounce it, put it back in their lap, take two pushes, et cetera. But at higher levels, the varsity division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, or at the college level or any of the adult divisions, you don’t see people putting the ball in their lap, because it’s easy to steal. If I’m playing defense on somebody and the ball is in their lap, I’m just going to take it out of their lap. So experienced players are going to keep their body between the ball and the defender, they’re going to dribble and push at the same time. It takes a lot of practice to get that good, and it takes a lot of coordination.
I am the Assistant Director for Wheelchair Athletics and Head Coach of Women’s Wheelchair Basketball at UW-Whitewater. We show wheelchair basketball at our new student seminars on campus. We put the students in chairs so they can see and experience what playing in a chair is like. A lot of people, when they see our athletes playing basketball, they’re like, ‘Oh, it looks easy.’ Then they get into a chair and they’re like, ‘Whoa, wait. How am I supposed to do all of this?’ People that have been playing for a long time make it look easy, because that’s what we have to do.
Disability is such a broad range, so we have a classification system for wheelchair basketball so the game is fair. A player must have a lower-limb disability that keeps them from playing standup basketball. That can be an amputation, or–like for me–paralysis. It can be some ligament deficiencies in the knees where you can’t pivot. Some people who play wheelchair basketball don’t use a wheelchair in their everyday lives, so you might not even know that they have a disability. Then there are people that have really high levels of paraplegia, so they don’t have any function in their abs, and mostly propel the basketball from their chest and arms. With a classification system, everybody is given a point value based on what they can do in their basketball chair.
The point system isn’t what the athletes do in their everyday lives, it’s what they do in their basketball chairs on the court. Our point system goes from 1.0 to 4.5, with half-point increments. People with 4.5 points have the most fully functioning bodies. Then we can only have 14 points on the floor at a time. So, if you have players with full function of their bodies, you can’t have five of those on the court—it levels it out so that everybody has a role on the court. The coaches propose a classification value for each player to the classification panel for review. A trained classification panel, made up of physical therapists and people who have been around the sport, comes in and watches everybody and confirms the classifications.
Just like in standup basketball, where the shorter players might be guards and taller players might be forwards, body type impacts the positions you play in wheelchair basketball. I was 2.5 and was a point guard. I can shoot the three, I can pass the ball, that kind of thing. Your ones and your 1.5s, I think people take them for granted, to be honest. They are the ones doing the dirty work. So if you see this big person getting into the key all the time, most of the time it’s because the player with 1.0 is getting them in, blocking for them and doing all the dirty work.
It is a little bit easier for 4.5s to shoot threes because, even though you’re sitting down, you still have your full core function. When I’m training athletes, if they have leg function, I want everything in their body to be as strong as it can be. Even if they’re not using their legs in their chair, we still should be working on that because they are still using those muscles and their legs get sore. They’re not paralyzed. But when I am working with someone that’s newly injured and they’re now paraplegic, I need to coach them on how to shoot the basketball differently. They used to shoot with their legs, but a lot of the shoot is from your arms and shoulders. I’m always telling the players, ‘Use everything that you do have to shoot.’ Wheelchair basketball involves a lot of upper-body work. It’s a lot of just getting stronger in the chair and knowing your body. When I shoot a three, everything that I have that works flexes and goes up with the ball.
The other day I said that to my mom. I said, ‘Well, you’re able-bodied.’ And she said, ‘You’re more able-bodied than I am.’ And I was like, ‘Oh wow. Okay.’ Then just thinking about disability, I’ve started switching away from that to say non-disabled.
I’m proud to be disabled. A lot of times in society, we think disabled is a bad thing, but I’m pretty proud of my disability. I wouldn’t be who I am, I wouldn’t have had the experiences that I’ve had without my disability.
Being a small-town kid, I don’t know if I would’ve had all these opportunities had this not been part of my identity. I probably wouldn’t be a three-time gold medalist. Because of who I am, I probably still would have been an athlete, but I might not have found the success or had the drive to be as good as I wanted to be.
I guess maybe I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong because our society does see disability as something bad—and it’s not. It’s something to be celebrated, it’s something that’s different. We all have our own differences, and we all have our own stories and things that we’ve had to deal with in life. This was just the card that I was handed, and I would never, ever, change it. I think if you asked my mom or my dad that too, they would never have changed it either. Maybe in the beginning it was scary because of all the unknowns, but then you find out about disabled sports and adaptive athletics and things like that, and then you think, ‘Why isn’t everything like this?’
If you’d asked me when I was younger, I might have said I just want to play basketball and not be a role model. But I have always wanted to give back to this sport. One of the student-athletes that I have right now is a veteran with a disability, and she’s amazing, and I’m so happy that she came into my life. My brother is also a veteran; he was in the army, and while he doesn’t have any physical disabilities, he has some other things he’s had to deal with. But I know for a fact that when he first came back from Afghanistan, helping out with my wheelchair basketball program helped a little bit with his healing. He gets involved as much as he can.
Wheelchair basketball started with veterans. Back in the 1940s, there were a lot of disabled veterans coming back from World War II. Wheelchair basketball started as an outlet for these injured soldiers—as amputees or paraplegics or whatnot—to play an organized sport and to have community and be around people that were going through similar things— people who understood.
I enjoy teaching the sport, and if it helps somebody in that way, then that’s even better, because I want people to know that it’s there. I didn’t know for 11 years that I could play sports, and I know the impact that it had on my life and my confidence in myself and my abilities. So if I can instill that, or help someone gain that back after a traumatic experience of an injury or whatnot, that’s why I do it—to be a role model, too, for kids that were born with spina bifida, and especially for women with disabilities, because I think you see men more than you do women. Not an inspiration, but maybe someone to aspire to be like.
It can be a good burden—it’s one that I’m happy to take on.
Christina’s story was produced by Scott Schultz. You can learn more about wheelchair basketball and the National Wheelchair Basketball Association here. You can learn more here about why UW-Whitewater is such a dominant wheelchair basketball program. And you can find the other stories in our Paralympics series here.
Photo 1: Paralympians and UW-Whitewater alumni who were members of the gold medal Team USA men’s wheelchair basketball team. From left, John Boie, Matt Lesperance, Nate Hinze, and Christina Schwab. Photo 2: Christina at Family Fest at UW-Whitewater. Photo 3: Christina and her son cheer on the men’s wheelchair basketball team. Photos by Craig Schreiner, UW- Whitewater
Great video clip from the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. The U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team comes back in the 4th quarter to win another Paralympic gold medal.