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. Nathan Hinze was one of the players.
Nathan Hinze | Ripon, Wisconsin
I loved high school athletics at Cedar Grove-Belgium High School. I loved just playing and being on a team. In the spring of my junior year, I had a bump on my leg that I thought was just a pre-existing injury from football and it turned out to be a cancerous tumor. I went from playing high school basketball one week to starting chemotherapy three weeks later.
There were nine months of chemotherapy, and they did extensive surgery on my right leg to remove the bone tumor. I have a titanium knee replacement and titanium rods in my leg that serves as my tibia. I pretty much have a prosthetic leg covered in skin. In the beginning of treatment, I was young and naive and thought that I’d be back and playing senior year. I don’t know when it finally sank that playing stand-up basketball wasn’t going to be an option.
I got my start in wheelchair basketball at UW-Whitewater. I went there in 2006 to pursue my degree in education and found wheelchair basketball by chance. I was kind of bored, so I went to the wheelchair basketball office on campus and asked if I could help be a manager, take stats, be the water boy or anything to get out of my dorm room and meet some new people.
I asked if I could play, and the guys said, ‘Well, you have to have a disability.’ I said, ‘Well, check this out,’ and rolled up my pant leg. They asked me, ‘How tall are you?’ I told them I was about 6′ 2. They called the coach and said, ‘Hey, you better get back to your office and check out what just walked in.’ I talked with the coach for a little bit, and he said, I should come back on Monday. And that was my start in wheelchair basketball.
That day was my first time sitting in a wheelchair trying to shoot some baskets
I assumed I’d qualify just because of the extensive surgery that I had. At that time, I had to wear some braces on my feet to help me walk. My walking was pretty slow. I couldn’t run, I still can’t run. Learning the sport wasn’t easy. When I first sat in a chair, I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I wasn’t sure how good I would get or how much I would pursue it.
I was looking for something to do recreationally, to fill that competitive void. My first couple of practices were brutal. My whole first year was pretty brutal. It was everything from learning how to dribble, to pick up the ball, how to shoot from the chair. Just getting my body acclimated to pushing a wheelchair was tough.
The teammates were the best I could have asked for because they had played wheelchair basketball in high school and had those fundamentals down. I was way behind in terminology, strategy…everything. It was me literally learning a new sport.
When you play against guys who are on the National Team level, you have two options: either you can get better, or you can not play. So that was a big reason as to why I got as good as I did. I had my goal set to make the National Team. I don’t think I expected it to happen as quickly as it did. I made my first National Team in 2009.
Making the National Team was a combination of luck and timing. In 2008 at the Paralympics in Beijing, the U.S. lost to Canada in double overtime. Then in the bronze medal game, they got beat by Great Britain and came home empty-handed. That next summer a lot of the guys who were worth my point values didn’t try out because they just wanted to take a year off. Wheelchair basketball assigns point values to players, based on their physical abilities–only so many points can be on the floor at once.
In 2011 I graduated from UW-Whitewater. It was my first-year teaching in Ripon and I made the Para Pan-Am team. The Ripon school supported me and let me leave for two weeks in November. I established myself, at least in my opinion, as being somebody who would be there with the team pretty consistently. My Paralympic medals are bronze from London and golds from Rio and Tokyo. I’m a three-time Paralympian and three-time medalist.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons from wheelchair basketball about working hard, staying focused and setting goals. It’s helped also to keep things in perspective about life. Because of the needed perspective, I haven’t been on the U.S. team every year since 2009. In 2013, my wife and I got married, so I couldn’t play that summer.
I’m thirty-three and happy with where I’m at and happy with what I’ve done. I have my master’s degree in educational leadership, am the athletic director and assistant principal at Port Washington High School. I’m happy just being a dad and a husband and staying home for the summers.
I’m not sure why UW-Whitewater developed such a wheelchair basketball tradition. It is a credit to the university of accepting a sport like wheelchair basketball and supporting us the way that they do. There’s a culture that has been established from past generations of players that helped put a lot of us on the National Team and hopefully will for years to come. We definitely have a long line of Paralympians that have gone through and made their marks. It’s a long list that I’m proud to be a part of.
Nathan’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.