GB wheelchair basketball aces ready to take on world

Laurie Williams competes at the 2016 Rio Paralympics (Credit: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)

Wheelchair basketball is one of the fastest – and fastest-growing – disability sports on the planet. TASS talked to four elite athletes boasting the best seats in the house ahead of this month’s World Championships.

“The pace was something I’d never been able to experience at school,” admitted Jude Hamer. As an impressionable 15-year-old seeking a fresh challenge she was hooked on wheelchair basketball from day one. “I loved it the moment I tried it.”

Twelve years down the line and Hamer, a veteran of the 2016 Rio Olympics, will suit up for her country at this month’s World Championships in Germany. The competition represents a key staging post on the road to Tokyo 2020 and has the potential to establish Great Britain as genuine medal contenders in Japan.

“We’re training with our sights set on a podium finish,” added Hamer. “In the group stage the Dutch will be a threat and the Americans are a big unknown. But we are heading to Hamburg in search of a medal.”

If Hamer boasts the experience and confidence synonymous with a seasoned senior international, then Peter Cusack is still learning the trade. But the ambitious teenager is the face of British wheelchair basketball’s bullish new breed and suggests the sport’s future remains in safe hands.

“I’ve just begun training with the GB senior squad,” explained the Coventry-based star, who narrowly missed out on selection for Hamburg. As a gold medal winning member of GB’s Under 23 World Championship squad his time will come. “That was my biggest achievement to date,” he added. “I love the sport. I tried everything as a kid but basketball was my favourite. After a few weeks I was hooked.”

Hamer and Cusack might be at opposite ends of their elite athlete journeys but both share a common passion for a sport that never fails to deliver. “It’s so fast paced and challenging,” added the former. “I love that you have to give 100% every time to reach your best and that there’s always something new to learn.”

Cusack concurred. “It’s a genuinely fun sport that also helps you to stay fit and healthy,” he added. “Basketball is so inclusive and allows people of all abilities to compete easily together.”

Inclusive it may be. But reaching the summit of any sport relies on dedication, focus and a programme of support that continues to develop the potential of disability athletes across England. Hamer is one of several members of GB’s Germany-bound roster who rose through the international ranks while committing to full-time education.

“I graduated from Worcester with a Biochemistry degree after I completed a foundation year at Loughborough,” she explained. “I have ambitions to work in clinical biochemistry and cancer research so being able to study at the same time as I played basketball was hugely important.”

Kayla Bell, who graduated from Worcester University with a BSc in Business Psychology, echoed her GB team-mate. “I’ve always been very academic and always wanted to go to university,” she said. “To study and train was the best of both worlds for me.”

Peter Cusack in training (Credit: Sport England/Andy Thompson)

Both Bell and Hamer were supported by TASS and established to encourage a dual-career approach to sport. Cusack is new to the scheme but has already felt the benefit of a programme designed to offer wide-ranging benefits on and off the court.

“I think I used to get too emotionally involved in the sport,” he added. “When I was playing badly – or if things weren’t going right – I could often lose my temper. Learning to control that was hard.

“TASS offers lifestyle support that helps athletes to focus and find a balance. I think finding time to socialise and relax can be difficult. When all of your free time is dedicated to sport you don’t often let your hair down. TASS helps me to strike the right balance.”

Cusack has accepted a place at Sheffield Hallam University to study Sport and Exercise Technology this year and heads to the Steel City confident in the knowledge that TASS will continue to support his sporting dreams and assist with his academic ambitions.

Bell, set to star in her first senior tournament this summer, vividly recalls the unique pressures facing emerging elite athletes and the 22-year-old added: “When I first started on TASS I was in year 11 – meaning that I had to deal with juggling my exams and revision with the demands of training and competing.

“Through TASS I was able to receive lifestyle support which helped me to plan ahead to the busy exam period and recognise when I would have time to relax. I found this extremely important because it allowed me not to stress and overload myself.

“Without that support I think I would have ended up sleep-deprived and not getting the results I wanted – either on or off the court.”

Bell and Hamer will be joined in Hamburg by another TASS alumna – two-time Paralympian Laurie Williams. The 26-year-old, who studied social psychology at Loughborough University, only has one thing on her mind ahead of what promises to be a pulsating competition in Germany.

“The Dutch are definitely the biggest challenge in our group,” she explained. “They beat us in the bronze medal game in Rio and won gold at last year’s European championships. They are a team to be reckoned with. But our target is to make it into a medal game. We have been working all year to prepare ourselves for these matches and we believe we can make the podium.”

Bell agreed. “I’d say that in our pool, the team that poses the greatest threat is the Dutch. They have some dominant high pointers that make them so effective in offence – that’s difficult to stop when they get going and gain momentum. At the moment our focus is on getting to a semi-final and then we take it from there.”

All three players agree that medal glory in the World Championships can be the catalyst for long-term success as Britain’s wheelchair basketball programme continues to grow. “In any sport when an individual or team does well they tend to get increased media coverage,” added Bell. “That helps to promote the sport and helps to get more people involved and excited to see the sport.

“I’d encourage young people to play wheelchair basketball as it can be a great outlet for so many people for so many different reasons. For some people it can be the only sport they really connect with and for others it helps them socialise outside of school.

“It can help open up new doors for young people, whether that be through volunteering within a club and at events or helping others get active. And when you think you have learnt all that you can, you have only just begun!”

Great Britain’s women tip off their World Championship campaign against Brazil on August 16. The men open up their Pool B account against South Korea the following day.

The TASS alumni representing Great Britain at the World Championships are:

Men’s Squad:

  • Gaz Choudhry (Albacete Amiab) – 04/05, 06/07
  • Simon Brown (Amiccaci) – 04/05
  • George Bates (Sheffield Steelers) – 10/11, 11/12, 12/13
  • Gregg Warburton (The Owls) – 12/13
  • Martin Edwards (The Owls) – 08/09
  • Lee Manning (Albacete Amiab) – 06/07, 07/08
  • Jim Palmer (Rhine River Rhinos) – 11/12, 15/16

Women’s Squad:

  • Sophie Carrigill (Coyotes / Sheffield Steelers) – 12/13
  • Kayla Bell (Coyotes / Sheffield Steelers) – 11/12, 12/13, 13/14, 14/15
  • Laurie Williams (The Owls / Coyotes / Angels of the North) – 07/08, 08/09, 09/10
  • Siobhan Fitzpatrick (Coyotes / CWBA) – 14/15
  • Maddie Thompson (Coyotes / Sheffield Steelers) – 09/10, 10/11
  • Amy Conroy (Coyotes / Angels of the North) – 08/09, 09/10
  • Helen Freeman (Coyotes) – 07/08, 08/09
  • Jude Hamer (RGK Tees Valley Titans / Coyotes) – 08/09, 09/10, 10/11