Women’s wheelchair basketball coach Stephanie Wheeler translates national success to Illinois

By Thomas Polcyn

Growing up in North Carolina, Stephanie Wheeler was attached to basketball at a young age.

Wheeler is the head coach of the Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team. During her time as head coach, the team has accomplished a lot.

The team made a run to the national championship at the end of last season but lost in a tough game to the University of Alabama by seven points.

“If you grow up (in North Carolina) it’s just kind of ingrained in you that you love basketball,” Wheeler said. “I loved it the first time I saw the game.”

Wheeler discovered wheelchair basketball when she was 12 years old. Once she got into it she never looked back.

Before she got into coaching, Wheeler played on the wheelchair basketball team at the University from 2005-2009, followed by a short stint at Alabama. She excelled at Illinois and was part of two gold-medal-winning Paralympic games teams for Team USA in 2004 and 2008.

After her playing career was over, Wheeler quickly got into the coaching game. Her first coaching job was in 2009 where she was an assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team at Alabama. Shortly after she was recruited by Illinois, she would get her first head-coaching job for the Illini women’s wheelchair basketball team.

Illinois is not the only team that has recognized her success — she also is a key component of the Team USA coaching staff.

She was the head-coach of the under-25 national team in 2011. Then in 2013, she was named the head coach for the senior national team.

“When I got this job at Illinois I knew that since I was involved with Team USA as a player I wanted to continue to stay involved with it,” Wheeler said. “I loved the high level we competed at, and I wanted to experience it as a coach.”

The job had a vacancy after the Paralympic games in 2012, and thanks to her many qualifications she landed the job.

Under Wheeler, the United States national team trains at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. Competitions are sometimes held there, but the team gets the opportunity to travel globally to compete.

“This past summer we went to Toronto for the Pan-Am games, we’ve gone to Germany, and are going to be making a trip back to Europe for next summer,” Wheeler said. “We’ll be all over the place. We generally try to go where our toughest competition is: Europe is one of the places we will find that so we’re going to try and get there next summer.”

As much as she loves her work with Team USA, Wheeler said her favorite coaching experience is taking the Illinois women’s team to the national championship last year.

“We saw them through losing games by 30 points, to developing and them taking an intentional approach to how they’re developing, and then all the way to them making it to the national championship game, which is pretty huge,” Wheeler said.

For this season the team looks to improve its all around game every single day. The team goal is to get back to the national championship and win it.

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