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A night of wheels

Pon Thoummavong

Quick! Name a sport where the athletes compete on wheels to see who’s the fastest, strongest, and sharpest. You might be tempted to think of cycling, but you would be wrong.

On Feb. 9, thanks to the efforts of Mills alumna Kathryn Black, Mills students received an introduction to one of the fastest, and fastest-growing, sports nationwide-wheelchair basketball.

Wheelchair basketball is one of the few sports where both disabled and able-bodied participants can compete on an equal basis, regardless of physical ability.

“I think it was a great opportunity to see the different ways a game can be played. I loved it, and it was a great workout,” said Hannah Peragine, sophomore, and a member of the Mills Disability Alliance.

According to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), the sport began in 1948 with just six teams spread across the United States. Today, there are over 185 teams in the nation, with more than 2000 athletes. The NWBA estimates that in the last decade it has helped over 50,000 individuals “Get Back in the Game,” both on and off the court, with its official campaign to introduce more people to the sport.

Jess Miller, director of Services for Students with Disabilities, helped organize the Mills event. Miller said that the day’s event, while open to everyone, was particularly geared towards college athletes, to provide them with the opportunity to experience what it’s like to play in a wheelchair.

“Issues of disability really tie into issues of inclusion and diversity,” Miller said. “That’s part of the awareness that we really want to raise.”

Kathryn Black, 48, has been playing wheelchair basketball for nearly two decades. When Black was 17 years old, she was involved in an accident when a school bus hit her while she was riding her bicycle. Following her recovery from a leg amputation, she opted not to use a wheelchair, using a prosthetic instead. Fourteen years later, when Black was working in the film department at Wright State University in Ohio, she first encountered the sport of wheelchair basketball.

“I didn’t know wheelchair basketball at all and never imagined playing,” Black said. “It was a great experience for me, and I’m really grateful I starting playing.”

After playing for the Wright State University team for several years, Black moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and joined a local team, the Bay Area Meteorites. At the same time, Black attended Mills College , graduating with an M.Ed. in 1993. During that time, Black said the Athletic Director at Mills helped her team with fundraising, providing play time in the college’s gymnasium, and even donated old Mills uniforms.

“We probably wouldn’t even have existed without Mills,” Black said. “The support that Mills gave made us feel that we’re worth it, and that we deserve to be able to play this sport.”

Black played with the Meteorites for nearly 10 years, until they disbanded in 2000. At the time, there were only nine women’s wheelchair basketball teams in the country.

Black has also participated in the sport on an international level, playing both on the U.S. Pan-American team and the Gold Cup team, the latter of which now plays at the World Championships. In 1994, she was named as an alternate on the U.S.A team for the 1996 Paralympic Games.

“I feel very lucky to be a part of the Paralympic team,” said Black. “Wheelchair basketball was a real opportunity for me to see myself develop skills, and grow physically.”

Today, Black is an occupational therapist for the Alameda County Department of Health where she works with kids and young adults with disabilities. Black also volunteers at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP), which provides opportunities for both children and adults with disabilities to play wheelchair basketball and to participate in track and field, tennis, and other events.

On Thursday evening, BORP has an adult recreational league for both disabled and able-bodied persons.

“You need support and the opportunity when you have a disability,” Black said. “Building awareness about disabilities will hopefully get more spectators and more people interested; you don’t even have to be disabled to play, just willing to get in a wheelchair.”