Manitoba wheelchair basketball team heads to nationals after 9-year hiatus

Wheelchair basketball took a backseat in Manitoba for nine years. Now a new program run out of the University of Winnipeg's Duckworth Centre is building up the sport, and sending a team to the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League National Championships.

Team re-building after wheelchair basketball nearly disappeared as a Manitoba sport

Manitoba wheelchair athletes practice every Tuesday at the University of Winnipeg's Duckworth Centre. The program is open to all ages and abilities. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

For the first time in nine years, the Manitoba wheelchair basketball program is sending a team to nationals. The Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League National Championships take place Apr. 15-17 in Kamloops, BC.

"We're ready to make a comeback and prove we're still around," said 23 year-old athlete, Jenny Kowalson.

Kowalson joined the team two years ago. Prior to that she had limited experience with team sports.

"Playing soccer in junior high school, I was always left back in the field because I couldn't keep up running and playing—just the normal kid stuff," said Kowalson. "Being here I was actually part of a team, something I never had before."

Kowalson was born with Cerebral Palsy, but she shares the court with athletes of many abilities. Wheelchair basketball is an inclusive parasport, which means it is made up of able-bodied players and athletes with disabilities.

Jenny Kowalson (right) takes a break from practice. Kowalson is heading to the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League National Championships in Kamloops, Apr. 15-17. (Kim Kaschor)

"Everyone has their role on the court," explained Samuel Unrau, president of Manitoba Wheelchair Sport Association. He is also part of the team headed to Kamloops.

"Someone who might have a lower functioning ability, they still have a role," said Unrau of those playing under the sport's point system. "They're not sidelined because you have to have that mix between high functioning and low functioning athletes."

Wheelchair basketball athletes are classified by Wheelchair Basketball Canada and assigned a point between 1.0 and 4.5. The total points on the court at one time cannot exceed 14, which means there must always be a mix of able-bodied and disabled players.

Nationals offers rare experience

Kamloops is an important stepping stone in re-establishing the sport in Manitoba, said head coach, Jarrett Yaworski.

Jarrett Yaworski is the head coach of the Manitoba wheelchair basketball program. (Kim Kaschor)

"It will be a wealth of experience for our program," said Yaworski. "This is an opportunity for our junior athletes to get experience so they can compete for our province at the Canada Winter Games in 2019, and it's an opportunity for our adult athletes who aged out of junior provincial eligibility many years ago to come back and mentor."

With only one wheelchair basketball program in Manitoba, the trip to Kamloops offers a rare opportunity for Manitoba athletes to compete, and an important benchmark for athletes such as Kowalson.

"It's really important to me," said Kowalson. "I cannot picture my life without it now."

11 athletes from Manitoba are headed to Kamloops for nationals. Their page is raising money for the cost of travel.

CBC News