The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois’ Ali Ibanez selected to USA women’s wheelchair basketball team

Photo Courtesy of Team USA
Ali Ibanez at the 2020 Paralympic games. Ibanez has competed for Team USA at two world championships, and this will be her second Olympics.

The National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) released its roster for the 2024 Paralympic Games on March 30, with an Illini making the cut. Sixth-year senior Ali Ibanez will represent the United States with 11 other women in Paris, France, from Aug. 28 to Sep. 8. Ibanez had a long road to this point, but has solidified her role with the national team in the last couple of years.

Sports were always a factor in her life, but finding people similar to her wasn’t always easy. Ibanez grew up as the only disabled kid amongst seven siblings, competing and participating in able-bodied sports camps with the rest of her family. It wasn’t until she was 13 when she first discovered wheelchair athletics. 

“My older sister was babysitting for a family, and they were going to a park,” Ibanez said. “The (wheelchair) basketball team was practicing at this basketball court outside, and she called my mom like, ‘You need to get over here!’ and we were all freaking out.”

It was her first glimpse of the Salt Lake Wrecking Crew, the only competition-level wheelchair basketball team in Utah. Ibanez played for them throughout high school when they changed their name to the Utah Rush. Still, this wasn’t your average basketball team, and getting together for games and practices was challenging. 

“We traveled a lot with them,” Ibanez noted. “We practiced maybe three times a week, which wasn’t the greatest because everyone was from all over the state.”

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In between tournaments her junior year, Illinois began its recruitment of Ibanez, before she committed to basketball in her senior season. Ultimately, the legacy of the nation’s first wheelchair basketball program and coaching experience lured Ibanez to Champaign, choosing to play for two-time Paralympic gold medalist Stephanie Wheeler. 

Once in school, Ibanez lived the full student-athlete experience. The struggles of managing classwork due to absences for games/practices and an uptick in competition were stark differences from high school, but she has adapted to the hectic environment after six years on campus. 

“I have to get a lot of my work done prior to training and working,” Ibanez said. “Absences are always hard. I’m in a lot of studios right now, so it’s not like I can just text my friend for lecture notes or anything … but that’s kind of just being a student-athlete: balancing life and academics.”

The competitive aspect came easy for Ibanez, helping lead the Illini to success on the court throughout her career. Program accolades include a national title game appearance in 2022 and the No. 3 seed in the 2024 NWBA Collegiate Women’s Finals.

The national team hopes Ibanez’s team success will translate to the world stage, where she has helped them before. First playing with Team USA in 2018, she quickly learned that paralympic competition was stronger than anything she had ever experienced.

“My coach at the time had to tell one of my teammates to come and hit my chair, because I was like, shell shocked,” she recollected from her first practice. “The pace is a little faster. Everyone wants to win, it’just a little bit more intense.”

Six years later, Ibanez still dons the red, white and blue across her chest. Preparation for Paris has already begun, increasing her workload on top of her education.

“We have training camps sprinkled from now until Paris,” Ibanez said. “They’re usually three to four days, two sessions a day in Colorado Springs. We’re doing a lot of team building … and then we have friendlies in Beijing, China in May.”

The balance of academics and basketball remains a struggle for her as the year winds down, but she appreciates the student-athlete process that she is almost finished with. Ibanez plans on moving back to Utah when this process is over, but for now, she gets one final stretch at Illinois and a chance to craft her game to compete with the best the world has to offer.

“I came here for legacy. I want to be able to pass that kind of stuff down to the people I’m playing with. I feel like I’ve been a pretty good mentor for the girls here,” Ibanez said one final time. “My job now is to make sure that everyone is being pushed to the extent that they’re able to develop and win a gold in Paris.” 



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About the Contributor
Ben Fader
Ben Fader, Sports Editor
Hello, I’m Ben! I’m a junior at Illinois and assistant sports editor at The Daily Illini. I’m majoring in journalism and minoring in communications and recreation, sport and tourism. This is my third year with The Daily Illini, and I can’t wait to produce some amazing work. Feel free to contact me at my email below with questions or concerns, or if you just want to talk sports!
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