Like so many North Carolinians living along Tobacco Road, Stephanie Wheeler grew up loving basketball. The game “is in our blood,” she once told disabledsportsusa.org.
But Wheeler, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, faced more challenges than most when she started to play. When she was 6 years old, she was paralyzed in an automobile accident that killed her mother.
Before the accident, Wheeler had been active in t-ball and gymnastics. Afterwards, she struggled to fit in – that is, until someone from a wheelchair basketball team saw the 12-year-old at the doctor’s office and asked her if she wanted to play.
Suddenly, Wheeler’s life had new purpose.
“I longed for the physicality of sports and was thrilled at the opportunity to be on a team again, even though I had never played basketball before,” she told outsports.com. “With the support of my family, I went to my first practice that next weekend; I think it's safe to say that I haven't gone a day without basketball as a huge part of my life.”
A sports camp at the University of Illinois further fueled her interest. She eventually went to college there and played on three national championship wheelchair basketball teams, earning All-America honors, as well.
Wheeler soon joined Team USA and was a member of gold-medal winning squads at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games. She also played on teams that won one gold medal and two silver medals at the World Championships.
“I was really fortunate to be on some great teams and lucky enough to go to two games,” Wheeler told disabledsportsusa.org. “Winning was pretty incredible. That group of twelve was the best in the world at what we did.”
Wheeler retired from competition in 2010 and quickly realized a dream when she was hired at her alma mater to coach the Illinois wheelchair basketball team. She was also chosen as the head coach of the USA Women’s Under 25 national team that captured the first world championships in 2011.
Two years later, Wheeler found herself at the helm of the USA Women’s Senior National Team. She coached the team to gold medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio and 2015 ParaPan American Games.
Wheeler, who turned 39 earlier this month, is also an activist for gender and disability issues in sport. She is focused on making sport accessible, as well as a safe space for everyone who plays regardless of gender, ability or sexual orientation.
Wheeler, who is the NCSHOF’s January Member of the Month, is also active in the Alliance of Women’s Coaches and the Nike LGBT Sport Foundation. She has a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Illinois, a masters in adaptive sport and pedagogy from Alabama and is doing doctoral work in cultural kinesiology at Illinois.
“It is ten times as important for an athlete with disabilities to participate,” Wheeler told disabledsportsusa.org “They get the opportunity to socialize. They learn self-discipline and work ethic. The health benefits are just as much, if not more important, than for able-bodied athletes.”
Tag(s): Member of the Month