By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN When Marissa Bartels heard about wheelchair basketball, she wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the sport.
“I was really hesitant at first. I didn’t want to leave my friends,” said Marissa, who, despite having Spina Bifada, played regular basketball at Delano Public Schools since first grade.
However, after giving wheelchair basketball a shot this year, Marissa discovered she had a natural knack for the game.
She even earned a national award as the female MVP in her division, and was named Rookie of the Year on her team, the Junior Rolling Gophers.
“I was surprised, because it was my first year,” Marissa said. “I didn’t expect it at all.”
As one of the top-scoring players, with 167 points for the seven-tournament season, Marissa’s recognition was well deserved.
“She’s definitely athletic,” her mother, Lynn commented.
Marissa doesn’t need to use a wheelchair on a daily basis, but because she has Spina Bifida, it is difficult for her to run.
In elementary school, her skilled shooting helped to make up for the lack of speed. When the team began playing at a more competitive level, however, it was harder to excel.
“I liked playing regular basketball, but I didn’t like how my team treated me,” Marissa said. “They kept telling me I was slow.”
Then, Marissa and her family found out about a wheelchair basketball team through the Courage Center, a Minnesota-based rehabilitation and resource center that provides treatment and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.
“I wish we would have heard about it sooner,” Lynn said. “They have swimming, archery, and all types of sports.”
The center is also a place to form lasting friendships.
“The parents you meet and the kids are just amazing,” Lynn said. “The first night we got there, one of the first things they did was have everyone say their name and disability. It sounds odd, but it was a nice welcome.”
Some people on Marissa’s team are unable to use their legs at all, while others have some lower body ability.
“It’s all different disabilities,” Lynn said. “You don’t have to try to fit in.”
For Marissa, Spina Bifida is lower in her spine, which means she is able to use her legs more than many people with her condition.
“The further the defect is up the spine, the more of a disability you have,” Lynn explained.
Marissa’s team, which includes boys and girls ages 13 to 18, practices once a week at the center in Golden Valley. Once a month, the group participates in competitions mainly located the Midwest.
“It is a big commitment,” Lynn said, but added that it’s well worth it to see her daughter on the court.
When Lynn first went to the Courage Center, she watched an advanced team playing, and was amazed at the amount of upper body strength the players possess.
Players are strapped into their wheelchairs, and when they slam into each other, the chair sometimes tips forward.
“They just pop right back up,” Lynn said.
Shooting also takes upper body strength. The basket is the same height as the regular game, but the players are lower to the ground.
“I tried to shoot from a sitting position, and it’s hard,” Lynn said.
Marissa said that at first it seemed challenging to dribble the ball while pushing the wheelchair, but she has gotten used to it.
Someday, she would like to play wheelchair basketball at the college level.
“After going through our first year of wheelchair basketball, I can tell you it has given Marissa great confidence and has opened up our eyes to the opportunities out there for kids with disabilities. It’s truly inspiring,” Lynn said.
Marissa is planning to play wheelchair softball and track and field at the Courage Center, as well.
“If anybody has a child with a disability, and they’re interested in having them play, I’d encourage them to contact Courage Center,” Lynn said. “They put on a great program.”