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. Jake Williams was one of the players on the team.
Jake Williams | Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Sports have been a big part of my life. I was born and raised in Milwaukee and went to Milwaukee Public Schools. I played flag football in elementary school and basketball in middle school. In high school, before I got hurt, I was on the swim team and track team.
It was the summer going into my senior year when I was hit by a car. When you’re sixteen, you’re trying to find out who you are. At that age, we have a lot of self-doubts. So, you throw in an accident on top of that and it kind of threw a loop into things for me. It was definitely hard, the physical pain of therapy, and learning how to live life. And there was the emotional pain, too. The mental state of being paralyzed is much harder than the physical pain that you go through.
When I was in the hospital, one of the guys that played on the UW-Whitewater wheelchair basketball team visited. Our parents worked together, and he happened to have the same doctor. He told me about adaptive sports, and I thought that sounded good. He gave my information to the local junior wheelchair basketball coach in Milwaukee. I started playing that October.
Playing basketball was a really good thing for me. It let me see a bunch of different people in the same situation as me. It was good to have a group of friends and a couple of family members for support. I was meeting new people and realizing it was OK to go out to fairs and festivals, or to restaurants and stuff like that.
There were two Milwaukee teams. A lot of kids, not just from around the region would come to play on one of the teams. A lot of the good basketball prospects were coming through. I went to Southwest Minnesota State University for my first three years of college, and then I transferred to UW-Whitewater for my senior year. I saw an opportunity at Whitewater, so I went for it. I set my mind on getting good I figured I could reach my goals if I was in a better basketball program.
I was invited in 2013 to try out for the National Team and made it. That was always my goal from day one when I was playing on the Milwaukee juniors’ team. A lot of people would ask me what my backup plan was—I didn’t really have one, to be honest.
The Paralympics obviously is the pinnacle of our sports. Interest is really high during those times, when it’s on TV. But it runs in cycles, and so do sponsorships.
It’s been pretty easy for me to stay motivated. We’re close as a team. We statistically had the best team ever assembled for the 2016 Paralympics. And this team was way too good just to win one medal, so I had to be back in 2020. This also was the first Paralympics where we got paid the same amount as the Olympians for a gold medal.
I’m not sure right now about getting ready for the 2024 Paralympics. The team’s growing and going through some turnover. I honestly don’t know what my future holds. I’m just taking it day-by-day and enjoying some time off. My only stipulation in my life now is I just want to be around the people that I care about and care about me—whether that’s on the National Team, or just my friends back home. I’m at the point in my life where I just want to be around that circle who are my security blanket, the good people in my life.
I live with my buddy and his family and seeing them every single day is awesome. Leading up to the Paralympics, I had to travel for the training camps for weeks and then I was in Tokyo for a month. But coming back home and seeing them every day is something special. I realized after college it wasn’t so much about missing out or sacrificing those relationships for my sport: it was a question of how I could build those relationships within my basketball career. Obviously, basketball was still number one, with the focus on the Paralympics. Now that I am done with school, without all those deadlines and all those distractions, I really can focus more on the things that I care most about. For me those things are basketball and the close people in my life.
The United States doesn’t have professional wheelchair basketball leagues, that’s why all the good players in the world go to Europe to play. I played in Germany for five years and now I am signed with a team over in Spain. It’s the same team I was on last year. But right now, I’m enjoying some time off. I’m exploring what the next chapters of my life might be like. I helped out with a gym class at my old high school yesterday, just kind of doing things to keep busy. I honestly don’t know what the future holds. This is the first time in years that it hasn’t just been basketball 24-7. I mean, we’re all trying to figure it out.
Jake’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.
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.