Island man makes move to Spain to compete in pro wheelchair basketball
'I can really put everything into basketball'
Westley Johnston of Kinkora, P.E.I., is set to make a big move at the end of the month — to Spain, where his new job will be on a professional wheelchair basketball team.
The 26-year-old will play for the Spanish Wheelchair Basketball League's BSR Valladolid, based in the historic Spanish city of Valladolid about 200 kilometres northwest of Madrid.
"I've been looking forward to doing this for a couple months now, ever since I signed with them," Johnston told Mainstreet P.E.I. host Matt Rainnie.
"Since the announcement, everything's just been super exciting at home."
'I need to do something'
Johnston has always played high-level competitive sports. After being diagnosed with a bone disease in Grade 11, he had numerous surgeries to replace one of his femurs.
"I wasn't able to play contact sports anymore," he said. "It got to the point where I couldn't even play able-bodied basketball."
He said he came across the sport of wheelchair basketball, and told his mother about it.
I didn't really realize how different wheelchair basketball is.— Westley Johnston
"I need to do something — I don't know what to do with myself," he told her. He called the P.E.I. Mustangs in Charlottetown, a competitive wheelchair basketball team that is part of the Maritime Wheelchair Basketball League, was invited to the next practice and has loved the sport ever since.
Johnston said learning the new sport was tough and at times frustrating, especially because he doesn't use a wheelchair in his daily life — unlike most competitors in the sport, he can walk.
"I didn't really realize how different wheelchair basketball is," he said. "Once you get in the wheelchair, it's almost a completely different sport. The only similarities to basketball is you shoot a basketball in a net. Using the wheelchair is a huge learning curve, it's something it takes years and years to even get comfortable doing."
One of the sport's biggest skills is being good at manipulating your wheelchair, Johnston said.
Another consideration is your teammates' abilities, he said — learning how to pass them the ball and set them up to be successful when, for instance, they have lower spinal injuries or muscular dystrophy in their arms.
"Things really started to click" two-and-a-half years ago, Johnston said, when Prince Edward Island hosted the Canadian league final.
Even though the Mustangs lost in a tough game against New Brunswick, Johnston was named the most valuable player for the tournament.
"That's when I realized 'OK, all the hundreds of hours and all the relentless training at 7 a.m. has really [come] together,'" he said.
In 2017 when he was chosen to play for Canada's junior men's team, he said he realized he had to step up his training if he was going to seriously pursue wheelchair basketball as a career.
He tried out for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, and trained with Canada's men's wheelchair basketball team this summer, just narrowly missing making the trip.
"I was with the team pretty much right up until they left, so it was a great summer training with them and trying to make the squad, but unfortunately I was the last cut," he said. "I grew really close with the team and I was really happy to see them all go and perform."
'It's just a dream come true'
This new opportunity to go pro brings his ambition to a new level, Johnston said.
"Every kid that plays sports growing up says they want to be in the NHL or whatever league they watch, so it's just a dream come true," he said.
"And in terms of day-to-day life, it's just a way for me to not have to work part-time or worry about money — I can really put everything into basketball," he said.
High-level wheelchair basketball has lots of fans in Spain, Johnston said, and he's looking forward to playing in front of them.
"It's one of the fastest-growing paralympic sports. So in terms of popularity, there's a lot of support and a lot of people that enjoy watching it," he said, noting there are 100,000 registered players in the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation.
BSR Valladolid's first game is set for Oct. 9.
With files from Mainstreet P.E.I.