Four Illini rounding out Team USA women’s wheelchair basketball team


Daily Illini File Photo

Illinois’ Tatyana McFadden (11) shoots the ball during the wheelchair basketball game against Chicago Sky for the Illini Classic Wheelchair Basketball Tournament that was held in the ARC on Saturday, November 7, 2009.

By Ryan Wilson, Staff writer

It’s not easy for some to forget tough losses. For the Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team members, they still have last year’s second-place finish in their minds.

Megan Blunk and Gail Gaeng are both trying to accomplish that after their tough tournament loss last season. Though their eligibility has since expired and their playing days as Illini are over, they are still sharing the court — now for the USA’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.

Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball coach Stephanie Wheeler is also back in charge of these two players — she is the head coach of the USA team.

Five-time paralympian Christina Schwab who graduated from the University in 2005 also joins the team.

The group’s next championship in mind is to win gold in Rio.

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“I think it’s awesome because I know what (Wheeler) wants,” Blunk said in a FaceTime interview. “She taught me everything I know about wheelchair basketball. She kind of molded me the way she wants a player to do.”

Besides the Illinois-turned-USA-para-athletes, Team USA brings a wealth of shooters, including Rose Hollerman of Arlington, Texas, and Desiree Miller of Whitewater, Wisconsin. 

Blunk herself will add depth to the team. In her last season with Illinois, she averaged 11 points, 3 assists and 3.6 steals per game. Gaeng averaged 20 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.

“We’re small, but we are smart, strategic and patient,” Blunk said. “I think we work really well together when we communicate, and I think we mesh well.”

The size deficit could pose as a challenge to their primary competition — the Netherlands.

“When the ‘bigs’ get in, there’s not a lot we can do,” Blunk said. “We got to play really good to keep them out (of the paint).”

Another challenge for Team USA will be the separation from their families, especially for moms on the team like Natalie Schneider of Crete, Nebraska. Schneider had her baby last October, and her husband and baby came to all but one Team USA training camp.

Now, though, Schneider will be staying in the Paralympic Village for the next three weeks.

“We are all really supportive of each other, and I think that’s why we are so good together,” Blunk said.

Blunk’s  mother, father, step-mother and aunt are staying in a nearby hotel and attended the Opening Ceremony.

Less than a day after the Opening Ceremony, where 1,136 para-athletes from 142 countries are welcomed to the Olympic Stadium, it’s game time for Wheeler and company.

The team will tip off at 8 a.m. central time Thursday in a pool-play matchup against France.

When asked about what it would mean to win the gold, Blunk’s eyes lit up under her wet hair twirled in a white towel. Yawning as the clock struck 11 p.m. on the day before the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Paralympics, a smile stretched across her face.

“It would be really awesome,” Blunk said. “I think that we have earned it.”

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that there were only three Illini rounding out the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team. There are actually four Illinois para-athletes on the team: Christina Schwab graduated from the University. In addition, the Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team finished in second place last year, not third. The Daily Illini regrets the error.