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Stephanie Wheeler

Stephanie Wheeler
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Name: Stephanie Wheeler
Sport: Wheelchair Basketball
Role: Head Coach of USA Basketball Team at Rio 2016 & HC for University of Illinois
Organisation: University of Illinois
Nationality: America
Date: Dec 2016

Stephane Wheeler is a USA wheelchair basketball coach and retired player.  She has won 2 gold Paralympic medals in her time at the 2004 Games in Athens and 2008 in Beijing.  After retiring from playing in 2010, and after spending some time previously in earning her masters degree in adaptive sport and pedagogy, Stephanie was appointed Head Coach at the University of Illinois women basketball team and in 2012 was named the Head Coach for the women’s national team.

In 2016, she lead her national team to Paralympic Glory as the team left Rio with the Gold Medal around their necks.

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A couple of months after this success and leading into the start of the new University season for Stephanie, we caught up with her and asked her a few questions about her career and her successes so far…

 

Thank you!  From a personal point of view, it was an incredible journey with this team and staff, but with that came quite a bit of sacrifice.  I had to give up quite a bit of time with my partner Laura and our family to pursue our dream of a gold medal in Rio.  However, through the process, I learned how to be present in the moment when I was home and we had time together as a family.  That’s something that I will carry with me forever.  I came into this experience as a young head coach (I was 32 when I took the job and had only been coaching for 4 years), so I knew that this experience was going to challenge me in ways that I hadn’t been challenged before.  I also knew that I had a lot to bring to our national team program with my teaching ability, so I was excited to share that with the athletes as well.  I know that I grew so much as a coach during my time with the team, both in my skill knowledge and in my people knowledge.  The greatest reward and success of the entire journey, though, was seeing the individual and overall team improvement from when my staff took over in 2013 up until the gold medal game in Rio.  It was a complete transformation mentally, physically, and emotionally for our team (staff included).  Nothing is more gratifying as a coach than seeing your team completely own every aspect of their performance in Rio.  That showed true maturity and growth and I couldn’t be more proud!

No, we didn’t have a holding camp in a city outside of Rio before the Paralympics, but we did arrive in Rio and into the Paralympic Village the day that it opened, which was about a week before Opening Ceremony.  We decided to go into the village on the day that it opened for a few reasons:  First, it gave the atheltes and staff time to get settled into village life.  A big part of a competition like the Olympics and Paralympics is familiarity and for our team, being familiar with our surroundings before competing was so integral for our success.  Second, it gave us time to train in Brazil after adjusting to the time difference and getting over our jet lag.  By the time we played our first game, we had already been in Brazil for almost a week and a half, so our bodies had the opportunity to properly acclimate.   Lastly, we wanted the athletes to be able to be excited about being at the Paralympics and “geek out” a little before we had to become laser focused on winning gold.  By getting there early, they had plenty of opportunity to fully appreciate and enjoy being in Rio and being at the Paralympics.  Day to day in the leadup to competition starting, my job was to first, plan our day so that we were maximizing our time on court with our practices, maximize our video time, and maximize the athletes rest and recovery time.  My staff and I would plan, conduct, and evaluate practices, watch and cut video of ourselves and other teams, plan fun activities for the team, meet with other staff members (sport psychologist, sport dietician, etc…), and then try to have some downtime of our own.  The days were pretty busy, but I feel that we were efficient in how we got our work done.

Yes!  I took a few days after I returned from Rio to recharge, and then got right back into full time coaching with my team here at Illinois.  My assistant coach ran practices during the Paralympics, so when I got back, they were already well into preseason work.  I took over October 1, which is when we can start regular season practices and have been going strong since then!

Yes, I started playing wheelchair basketball when I was 12 years old.  I was a pretty physically active kid growing up, playing t-ball and gymnastics until I was in my car accident that left me paralyzed at age 6.  During the time before I found wheelchair basketball, I desperately wanted to be physically active and to find a sport that I could play with my peers.  I would play with them informally on the playground, but I really craved the environment of team sports.  I have loved the game of basketball for as long as I can remember (it’s the most popular sport in the state of North Carolina, which is where I grew up)!  I love the physicality, the pace and tempo, the varied skill set it requires to be successful, the intelligence it takes to play the game at the highest level.  I think it’s safe to say that I love everything about wheelchair basketball!

I always say that I have had more “once in a lifetime” moments than I could have ever dreamed of having! Winning two Paralympic gold medals has certainly been one of the highlights of my athletic career!  In 2004, I was a young player on a very veteran team that was ready to compete for a gold medal.  I remember the excitement and awe of competing at the Paralympics in Athens…I couldn’t believe that I was living my dream!  I didn’t get big playing time, but I definitely made the most of the time that I did have on the court in practices and games learning from my coaches and teammates.  When 2008 came around, I was more mature and ready to contribute on the court in a big way.  Competing in the Paralympics the second time around was more of a business trip in my eyes.  As a young player, I just wanted to take everything in…the city of Athens, the village, the experience of competing on the highest level…I was a kid in a candy store.  In Beijing, as a more mature and experienced athlete, I knew exactly what had to be done to win a gold medal and didn’t let anything distract from that mission.  But you know, and I know this may sound so cliché, but when I reflect on our achievements, I truly believe that the memories that I made with my teammates and coaches are what I remember most about my time as a national team athlete.  Whenever my teammates and I reunite, the conversation isn’t about winning…we laugh and reminisce about how we got there, the crazy times we had together, and how we wouldn’t trade that for anything!  I truly hope that our team from Rio can look back on their experience and say the same thing someday.  I also think about everyone in my life that has contributed to those gold medals.  I give my best effort each time I was on the court because I wanted to be at my best for them, since they invested so much in me.  They own a piece of each gold medal.

I knew I wanted to coach as I got closer to the end of my undergraduate career at the University of Illinois.  We had to coach during our summer camps each year, so that gave me the chance to realize that I loved teaching and loved helping young athletes learn the game.  My coach at Illinois at the time also started taking me to camps that he ran around the country and around the world.  For me, I think it was a natural transition.  By the end of my playing career, I was a very vocal leader on my club and national teams.  I was empowered by my coaches to be a coach on the floor at times, so I had that skill set to take into coaching.  Once I started coaching full time, I knew I could teach the fundamental skills of our game, but there was so much more that I had to learn about teaching and just the art and science of coaching in general.  I am fortunate to have great mentors and people in my life that invest in me and my career everyday so that I can continue to grow and not just rely on my success as an athlete, or now as a gold medal winning coach.

I think the biggest way that I had to adapt is in how I managed the two programs.  With my college program, I only have a staff of 3 people I have to keep connected and moving in the right direction.  While that can be a challenge at times, as it puts a lot on our plates, I don’t have the task of managing a web of people.  I quickly learned that as the head coach of the national team, it was my job to not only direct the technical and tactical development of my athletes, but to also coordinate and connect the entire staff supporting and working with the team, which consisted of assistant coaches, a team leader, an athletic trainer, a sport psychologist, a sport dietician, a strength and conditioning coach and additional high performance support staff from the USOC.  The aspect that remained constant however, is how I coach and the expectations that I have for my athletes.  While the teams were at different levels developmentally, my expectations for each team don’t waiver.  The athletes know that they were expected to give their best effort mentally and physically, work together as a team, and play with intelligence.  Now, the execution of those aspects may look different for each team, but the expectation never wavered.  Now that I can look back on my time coaching both programs, I know without a doubt that I love coaching college basketball.  I enjoy working with athletes in that age group and skill development level because the growth they show in their time in our program is exponential, both on the court and off the court in their growth as young people.  I want my success as a coach to be defined by the kind of student-athletes that graduate from our program and that go out and do great things in this world.  Coaching at the college level allows me to see success every year, no matter our record on the court.

There have been a few times where I feel I have faced barriers.  There was a national team coaching job that I applied for and didn’t get.  When you looked at my resume in comparison to the male coach that got the job, I was the most qualified candidate.  In the long run, the coach that was hired quit, and I eventually ended up coaching that team anyway, but it was definitely a time I felt I wasn’t hired because of my gender.  There have also been a few times where I have felt undermined in some decisions and in meetings or have had my ideas regurgitated from another male coach, but in all honesty, that just fuels my desire to speak up more, to do what’s right, and be more assertive to keep changing the culture for female coaches in our country, and more importantly for female coaches with disabilities.

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