Stephanie's Story

"Stephanie Wheeler has established herself as a mainstay on the U.S. Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team. Entering Beijing, Wheeler was one of a handful of players returning from a U.S. team that won gold in Athens, Greece. A starter throughout the 2008 Paralympic Games, Wheeler once again led Team USA to a gold medal. She is now the head coach for the women's wheelchair basketball team at Illinois. Wheeler is working on her Ph.D. in Adapted Physical Education." Source: Team USA

I am a teacher.  I am a friend.  I am a granddaughter.  I am a listener.  I am a fierce competitor.  I am a niece.  I am a champion.  I am a hard worker.  I am a leader.  I am a lifelong student.  I am evolving.  I am a Paralympian.  I am demanding.  I am grounded in and driven by my beliefs and values. I am a partner. 

I am a coach. This is who I am. 

I am disabled.  I am gay.  This is also who I am.

I am living my truths on my own terms.  Sometimes it scares me.  Mostly, it empowers me.  I grew up in a space where being different wasn’t cool.  I wanted to get through each day without being seen or being noticed.  I was the kid in the wheelchair in my school and in my southern community of about 1,000 people, and that made me very different.  I felt defined by my disability and by the accident that caused it and that took my mother’s life when I was 6 years old.  I was never bullied outright and I had plenty of friends, but I never felt completely included.

Now on the basketball court, well that’s where I could be seen; be noticed without the glare of the status quo or the “normal” dictating my actions.  I found wheelchair basketball when I was 12 years old.  Actually, it found me.  I’m not sure how many people can say that one of the greatest days of their lives happened in a doctor’s office, but I can! Someone involved with a local wheelchair basketball team saw me in a doctor’s office and asked if I was interested in playing.  It’s where my life started.

 

Before my accident, I had played T-ball and gymnastics, yet  after my accident, I was put on the sidelines. 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.  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.

I took to the sport quickly and earned an opportunity to play at the University of Illinois while receiving a great education.  This is where I found my true self.  I became outgoing, an avid learner, and a part of an incredible community (both academically and athletically).  I wasn’t the kid in the wheelchair anymore.  I was the collegiate athlete (and I had the letterman’s jacket to prove it)!  I didn’t want to hide my disability anymore, but now there was a different battle brewing inside.

As my basketball skills grew, I was fortunate enough to be named to our USA Women’s wheelchair basketball team for the first time in 2001 and remain on the team until I retired from competing in 2010.  It was quite the run for us, as we won 2 Paralympic gold medals, the first in Athens in 2004 and the second in Beijing in 2008.  We also won 2 World Championship silver medals and 1 gold medal.

My disability became a non-factor in my life.  I have been successful because of it, not despite it.  Sport equalized the playing field.  However, I still didn’t feel completely whole.  I had been dating guys all of my life, without question.  That was just how things were supposed to be. But not for me.  I began dating women in 2008 and finally felt what I had been missing.  I resisted.  It wasn’t right.  I wanted to turn back into my 15 year old self; wanting to go through a day without being noticed, but this time because of my sexuality. 

Over time, I became tired of hiding and decided it was time to come out.  I first told some of my closest friends, who were also teammates.  They have been nothing but supportive and gave me the courage to be my true self.  I didn’t feel the need to hide, or come out anymore.  I was just me. If people knew, they knew, and that was just fine with me. It’s definitely not easy. 

I know there are those in my life who aren’t completely supportive. I still struggle to be myself all the time, but then I remember that now in my coaching career, I have a team of young ladies that watch how I live my life.  I want them to be empowered, confident and self-directing young women.  If I don’t carry myself in that manner, I can’t ask them to do the same.

The fact that I am disabled and I am gay doesn’t mean my medals shine any less or are worth any less.  It just means that my path is slightly different, but no less worthy.  I have a beautiful partner, an amazing family, a growing career, and enough once in a lifetime moments to fill many lifetimes.  I am defined by my actions, my beliefs and my values; not by a wheelchair or my sexual orientation.

I am empowered.  I am confident. I am self-directing.

This is my truth.  No one else gets to define this for me. 

 

*Photo Credit: Tamara Parker