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 was 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. Matt Lesperance was one of the players on the team.
Matt Lesperance| Madison, WI
Before I got in a wheelchair, I was a very active kid from Coleman. I graduated in 2006 from Coleman High School, with 47 kids in my class. I was always big into sports. Football, basketball, baseball, whatever kind of ball— I was involved in it.
But when I was nine years old I had my injury: transverse myelitis. That’s where tissue wraps around the spinal cord and pinches the nerves. So, I’m unable to move my legs, and I use a wheelchair.
After my injury, my family was put in contact with a family in Suring whose son was also in a wheelchair. We got close. He was on a wheelchair basketball team, so I got invited to a fundraising event in Green Bay and took part in it. I was hooked.
That next season I was with the team and wheelchair basketball became my life. Knowing I could compete in a wheelchair was huge.
There was a junior wheelchair basketball team down in Madison. I joined the team when I started high school. Then I attended the UW-Whitewater Wheelchair Basketball Camp and found out I could go to college and play basketball. I was like, ’Sign me up.’ So, after I graduated from high school, I started my wheelchair basketball career at UW-Whitewater.
At Whitewater, I got introduced to the national team. I had my first tryout in 2007 for the national team and didn’t make it—but it was a big learning experience for me. Then in 2008, which was the Paralympics in Beijing, I got another tryout and made the team. We took fourth at the Beijing Paralympics. Everything took off from there. I was pretty young. Everything was going fast. I just took it all in. There was a lot of work to do. I wasn’t selected for the teams that went to the 2012 and 2016 games, but kept working to make the 2020 team.
There is a lot of contact and you’re using your entire upper body in this sport. In able-bodied basketball, they’re running up and down the court and their arms are somewhat fresh for when they’re ready to get a shot. But we’re using our arms to push up and down the court and pushing as fast as we can. And when you’ve got that open look for a shot at the basket, your arms can’t be tired. You’ve got to be able to pick that shot.
I work full time, so I mostly work out after 4:30 p.m. We have a strength and conditioning coach who lays out a program for us. Typically, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are weight-lifting sessions; Tuesday and Thursday are cardio sessions.
I have a hand-crank cardio machine in my apartment and a hand-cycle I take out during the summer. And then on the weekends, I get most of my on-court basketball pushing and shooting. It’s a lot of training.
Having to wait to play the 2020 Paralympics in 2021 was a difficult time, physically and mentally. When everything hit in March 2020, I saw the NBA season postponed, and other sports were being canceled or postponed. And then they started talking about the Olympics, which at that time were about five months away. Not knowing too much about the coronavirus, I was thinking, ’Five months away; we’re going to be fine.’ And then it was postponed. At first, I was upset because you train for this moment and was really planning my summer to get ready for these games. Hearing that it was going to be postponed for another year was definitely tough to take at first.
It impacted my mindset, especially as it got closer to the games. I went back and forth between training and thinking, ‘Oh, is it worth training today because this might not even happen?’ It was a constant battle in my head.
There were protests in Tokyo; a lot of people in Japan didn’t want the games to happen, which I could understand. But for someone like me, training my whole life for this event that comes every four years, I really wanted it to happen. I am very thankful it happened.
The days in Tokyo were packed, so we didn’t get to see much of the city. We were there for the mission of coming home with a gold medal. We’d have a film session, we might have to get a lift in, and then we might have a game. That’s a whole day right there. But it would have been nice to have one or two days just to see and experience the food. I’m a big food guy. I love sushi, so it would have been great to experience that over there.
Whether I go to another Paralympics depends on a lot of things. I’m 34 and have really had to start taking care of my shoulders. A lot of us guys have been going at it for a long time, and I don’t want to get to the point where I have multiple surgeries. It also depends on what the other guys decide to do. We have a great group of guys. A lot of them won gold in 2016; a lot of them won gold this year, too. They’ve been on the team a long time, and I’m sure they want a break, too.
Matt’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. You can find the other stories in our Paralympics series here.