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HL girl is having a ball with wheelchair sports
Feb. 20, 2017

By Starrla Cray
Associate Editor

HOWARD LAKE, MN – Bounce, bounce, swish.

Emilee Gustafson of Howard Lake is quick on the court, making wheelchair basketball look much less tricky than it really is.

She’s been playing at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (aka the Courage Center) since she was 6 years old, and is now on a varsity team called the Jr. Rolling Timberwolves.

“I’m hoping to eventually be at the college level,” said Emilee, a sophomore at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School.

At the Courage Center in Golden Valley, wheelchair basketball is open to males and females ages 5 and older with a permanent lower extremity disability. Some team members are amputees, or have a spinal cord injury, spina bifada, cerebral palsy, or a limb length difference.

In Emily’s case, her disability is caused by hereditary spastic paraplegia, a term for a rare group of genetic disorders characterized by progressive weakness and stiffness of leg muscles.

“It just makes the muscles in my legs a lot weaker, and I get tired walking long distances,” she explained.

Emilee’s father (Jeff Gustafson), aunt, cousin, grandmother, and some of her great uncles also have the condition, to varying degrees.

“My cousin and dad use a wheelchair like I do, and my aunt and grandma still walk,” Emilee said. “For my dad, it started in eighth grade. He started having trouble walking.”

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, more than 50 forms of hereditary spastic paraplegia have been identified. Some individuals are able to walk without assistance, while others require a cane, walker, or wheelchair.

In elementary and middle school, Emilee used braces to help her walk. She also had two years of physical therapy, but didn’t notice improvement. In high school, she began using a wheelchair because walking became too difficult.

Emilee’s condition hasn’t kept her from athletics, though.

“I play wheelchair softball in the summer,” she said. “I don’t play any other sports full time, but I’ve tried lacrosse, and I kind of tried sled hockey. It’s really hard.”

At the Courage Center, people with disabilities have access to all kinds of recreation, such as skiing, horseback riding, swimming, golf, martial arts, and rock climbing. Emilee’s 18-year-old brother, Tyler, is a volunteer at the center, and he enjoys playing wheelchair basketball with his sister.

“[The Courage Center] is such a great place, and they offer so much,” said Emilee’s mom, Karen Mumford.

Emilee practices basketball at the Courage Center twice a week, and travels to five tournaments per year. She’s on the most competitive youth team, which is open to girls and boys ages 13 to 18.

See Emilee play Feb. 25

Emilee’s next tournament is set for Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Sandburg Learning Center, 2400 Sandburg Ln. in Golden Valley, starting at 9 a.m. This is the closest tournament of the season, as most are out of state.

Karen said she hopes people from the area will be interested in stopping by to see the sport, and to cheer Emilee on.

For more information, contact coordinator Cara Gulbronson at (612) 775-2278.

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