Medill Olympic Media Project:
Long Road to Rio for Illinois Wheelchair Basketball Players
By: Maddie Lee
University of Illinois wheelchair basketball player Megan Blunk dribbled to her right, then crossed over to her left. Three defenders blocked her way, the wheels of their chairs practically touching. She pivoted and slung the ball to Gail Gaeng on the opposite side of the court. Gaeng drove to the basket and passed back to Blunk just before a defender slammed into her with a metallic crunch, back wheels coming off the ground. The defense had shifted and left Blunk with the open shot.
Gaeng, 23, and Blunk, 26, finished their final season playing for Illinois together, and are going to Rio this summer to compete in their first Paralympic Games. They have been teammates for five years (the maximum college eligibility in the Wheelchair Basketball Association), developing complementary playing styles as different as their journeys to this point.
“[Megan is] the yin to Gail’s yang almost,” said Illinois and Team USA coach Stephanie Wheeler.
Because she sees Gaeng and Blunk almost every day at Illinois, Wheeler said she relied on her assistant coaches during the Paralympic trials to keep her unbiased while selecting her team for the Games in Rio.
Gaeng and Blunk have both been on the national team since 2013, but their spots were never guaranteed in the following seasons.
“You look for those athletes who have that dedication and have that passion for their country and that passion to represent their country,” Wheeler said of the selection process. “I think that when you find those athletes, they’re gold, right? I think Gail and Megan are both those athletes.”
Gaeng’s presence on the court demands attention. She pushes her chair with authority and cheers on her teammates with shouts and high fives. Wheeler describes her as “the heart and soul of our team.”
Blunk does damage sneakily. She uses her speed to slip through open lanes and will make a team pay if they put their defensive pressure elsewhere. Her encouragement is quieter and she always has a joke to crack.
“It’s a balance between Gail’s energy and Megan’s calm,” coach Wheeler said.
Gaeng, a Maryland native, was born with nerve damage in the lower half of her body due to a virus in utero. She walks with leg braces and only uses a wheelchair on the court. Growing up as the youngest of six in a family of athletes, Gaeng started playing able-bodied basketball as a young child. Up until middle school, her shooting, ball handling and knowledge of the game were enough to make her a threat. In middle school, where she had to move up and down a larger court, the coach cut her in tryouts.
A year later, a physical therapist told her about wheelchair basketball.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute runs a sports program for children with disabilities, the Bennett Blazers, in Baltimore, about 45 minutes from her house. They had teams for kids of all ages and skill levels in sports including hockey, softball and of course basketball.
Directors of the Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation program Gwena and Gerry Herman “do an unbelievable job with that program,” Gaeng said. “That’s kind of why I’m here.”
Gaeng tried out for the national team for the first time in 2008. She didn’t expect to make it and was grateful for the experience she gained as an alternate. She tried out the next four years and each rejection was harder.
“For a while there, each time I didn’t make the team there definitely was a doubt in my mind like, ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’,” Gaeng said.
On her sixth try, she finally made the national team.
She has been on the team for the past four years, and when she made the cut to go to Rio, she called her parents first.
“They’ve been there to pick me up after each time that I didn’t make the team. Five times is a lot,” she said. “It was awesome to call them and tell them I made the team, and how happy I was that they have been on the long road with me.”
Blunk’s journey into wheelchair basketball started when a 2008 motorcycle accident left her an incomplete paraplegic at age 18. She can move her quadriceps and abs and she has some control over her hamstrings and lower back.
A year after the accident, a young man also in a wheelchair introduced her to the sport, and the Washington State native began playing informally with a group of guys in Lakewood, a city just outside of Tacoma. It was 40 minutes away from her home, and with no coach and no nearby teams to compete against, she said, they were stuck mostly just shooting around. She knew how many athletic opportunities there were for able-bodied people in the area, and the comparison frustrated her.
“It almost made me hate being in a wheelchair even more than helping me get through it and be happy again,” she said.
Blunk had played sports since she started soccer in kindergarten. She played soccer, basketball and fastpitch in high school. She knew how many athletic opportunities she was missing now that she was in a wheelchair.
She quit and then returned a few times before going to a wheelchair basketball camp in Seattle, where she met the Illinois men’s coach Matt Buchi. He got her thinking about college.
In 2011, she transferred to Illinois with her associate degree and a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball. She said she’s the first person in her family to go to college. She finished her undergraduate degree in three years and is now in her second year of graduate school.
“And that’s all because of […] the accident and wheelchair basketball,” she said.
Blunk has always struggled with depression, and it got worse after the accident. She used to think if she tried hard enough it would go away, but she’s learned that’s not the case.
“But it doesn’t have to be as bad or control my life as much,” she said.
Blunk and Gaeng met for the first time on their recruiting visit. All Gaeng knew about Blunk then was that she was very athletic but relatively new to wheelchair basketball.
“I knew there would be some times,” Gaeng said, “that because I’d been playing for so long, maybe I could help her along and maybe I could give her a few pointers. But now, I think we’re equally both trying to push each other to be the best that we can.”
Between U of I and Team USA, Blunk and Gaeng see each other most days. Over five years, they have developed side by side.
Blunk found her confidence. Gaeng stepped into her role as a leader.
“She’s a very solid person,” Blunk said. “She’s very strong and she’s someone I would look to for guidance on the court.”
Their rapport has not gone unnoticed.
Gaeng said one fan at the Alabama tournament told them it was like they were communicating telepathically out there.
Was that accurate?
Gaeng laughed. “Sometimes, yeah.”