By Nathan Baird, Journal & Courier
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Shelby Gruss’ one-woman basketball workout is a flurry of perpetual motion.
Zipping left to right, in and out without the assistance of a rebounder, Gruss scores layup after layup. She’s trying to keep her heart rate around 110, mixing cardio with her shooting routine.
Gruss squeezes these workouts at Purdue’s France A. Cordova Recreational Sports Center in between her work pursuing a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics. Before heading down to the courts, she has to stop off and switch out her day-to-day wheelchair for one specially made to help her play at the top level of her sport.
Gruss has been paralyzed from the waist down since suffering a spinal cord injury as a high school senior in 2010. She was captain of Team USA’s women’s wheelchair basketball team this month in the Dutch Battle in Amsterdam. That’s a precursor to the World Championships, held Aug. 16-26 in Hamburg, Germany.
Gruss’ coaches and teammates consider her a calm, stabilizing force in the hectic frenzy of competition. However, like anyone who grew up playing basketball on a farm in Ossian, Indiana, her intensity for the game shows through.
“Some athletes shy away from that,” Team USA coach Trooper Johnson said of the physical nature of the sport. “She definitely does not shy away from that. She gets this big smile on her face.
“She’s an athlete content about fouling out in the 39th minute of every game. She’s a great role model for female athletes with disabilities and she’s going to help generate a positive image for USA basketball.”
Gruss grew up near Fort Wayne with three older brothers. The family barn, of course, had a basketball hoop. She played all kinds of sports before focusing on cross country and basketball at Bishop Luers High School. By her senior year, she established herself as a solid player on one of the top teams in Class 2A.
Yet that senior year state-tournament run was supposed to be the end of Gruss’ basketball career. Her athletic interests had shifted outdoors. She loved skiing and snowboarding. For college she planned to head west, to the University of Montana, with hopes of becoming a wildlife conservation officer. Yellowstone National Park would be right around the corner, and Gruss envisioned work and leisure lives immersed in nature.
In the meantime she looked for outdoor sports opportunities closer to home. Over Christmas break, she and two of her brothers went to Ohio for a snowboarding event. Attempting what’s known as a “big air jump,” Gruss took off into the air as she had done hundreds of times before.
“It basically went wrong from there,” Gruss said.
Gruss landed inverted, her upper back slamming into the cold ground. At first she only thought she’d had the wind knocked out of her. She could move her arms. Her broken back and ribs began to ache.
Only when her brothers arrived to take her down the hill did the severity begin to emerge.
Gruss could not move her legs.
“Within five minutes I knew something was wrong,” Gruss said.
Gruss had broken the T8 and T9 vertebrae. Paralyzed from the waist down, she would graduate high school in a wheelchair and remain in one the rest of her life.
That’s a devastating diagnosis for anyone, especially a teenager with so much life ahead of them and so many active plans to fill it.
Gruss, however, credits a big support system for helping her avoid the extended depression stage experienced by some with spinal cord injuries. She talked to others who experienced similar injuries and learned she could still do many of the things she’d done before, with some extra effort or strategies.
Being a high school athlete in great shape helped her adapt to wheelchair usage. She didn’t need to build herself up physically, only learn the mechanics of pushing her chair and doing the wheelies necessary to get over obstacles.
After only a week in the hospital she moved to Rehabilitation Hospital of Indianapolis. She was introduced to wheelchair basketball there, but it didn’t immediately take hold. Bishop Luers dedicated its season to Gruss. She traveled with the team when it won sectional, regional and semistate championships before falling in the state title game.
Eventually Gruss also began attending Turnstone, an outpatient physical therapy facility in Fort Wayne. They had a wheelchair basketball team, and Gruss again gave the game a shot.
This time, it stuck.
“I just fell in love with it again,” Gruss said.
Her dreams of moving west derailed, Gruss began attending Purdue Fort Wayne. She and a friend founded the Adaptadons — a disabled sports club at the university. She also continued to play for the Turnstone Bandits. One day, the University of Illinois brought its club team to Fort Wayne for a match.
That game changed Gruss’ life.
In 1948, Illinois became the first university to offer post-secondary opportunities for disabled athletes. Basketball was the first sport offered. Today, Illini athletes on those teams earn varsity letters and have access to the same resources on campus as able-bodied student athletes.
Playing the Illini, Gruss encountered another tier of skill and speed. This was serious basketball. Gruss, a serious competitor, found a new challenge.
“You’re that good? I’m going to be that good,” Gruss said. “It might take me two years, but I’m going to get there.”
Gruss didn’t realize, but that game also opened some eyes on the Illini. Coach Stephanie Wheeler took notice of the “incredibly athletic” player on the Bandits. While Gruss was obviously new to the sport, her desire and competitiveness were apparent.
Former Illini player Kaitlyn Eaton remembers Gruss approaching the Illinois players and asking for tips after the game. They encouraged her to find her way to Champaign.
Gruss respects those who pioneered wheelchair basketball while using traditional chairs.
Her specially designed chair includes slanted wheels for balance and speed, extra braces to keep her strapped in tight and a “fifth wheel” in back to prevent her from tipping over backward.
These chairs run from $3,000 to $5,000 apiece, and no wheelchair basketball skill is more important than being able to maneuver on the court.
For instance, imagine trying to play defense with literally no lateral movement.
“The goal is you are the chair and the chair is you,” Gruss said. “If you can’t use your chair properly, you’ll never be good at wheelchair basketball. You can be an amazing shooter but you’ll never get a shot because you’ll never move your chair to a spot that’s open.”
Many of the game’s rules are the same, or at least similar. To avoid a travel call, players must dribble once for every two times they move their chair. It’s a fast-paced game, not just because it’s played on wheels. Using international rules, teams have eight seconds to cross halfcourt and 24 seconds to beat the shot clock.
As an able-bodied player, Gruss relished basketball as a contact sport. She’s in her element there more than ever, now. Games feature a lot of “chair contact.” Gruss said someone is thrown to the ground at least once a game — usually clean.
Eaton said Gruss became one of Illinois’ go-to players for a “smart foul” to stop the clock.
“She’s willing to get in there and make contact,” Wheeler said. “She wants it. She thrives on it. When you can find a player like that, they’re gold.”
One other major difference in wheelchair basketball is lineup construction. Players are classified based on their physical limitations, from 1.0 on the low end to 4.5. Gruss is a 1.0, since she can’t move her hips or twist her chair without turning her wheels.
A team’s five players on the floor can’t total more than 14 points on that scale. That makes a Class 1 such as Gruss as important as a 4.5, since the higher score player can’t be on the floor without the lower score.
Class 1s do a lot of grunt work, either creating shots for higher-class players or helping create a path to the basket. They’re also targeted by opponents for their vulnerabilities on the court. They’ll isolate Class 1s and run bigger, faster players at them to capitalize on a mismatch.
Seem unfair? Gruss shrugs. They do the same to other teams.
“I want to make that not work for other teams,” Gruss said.
Gruss’ teammates at Illinois and with Team USA came to wheelchair basketball for a variety of reasons. Some, such as Eaton, were born with congenital disabilities. Others, like Gruss, suffered injuries later in life.
Other wheelchair athletes say it’s somewhat rare for someone injured as late as Gruss to reach this level so quickly.
After joining the team at Illinois, Gruss made up for her novice status by constantly asking questions. She would stop a play and ask a question — something Eaton, a year younger, said gave her more confidence to ask her own questions.
After the first tournament of the season, when Gruss didn’t play much, she pulled Wheeler aside. Not to complain, but to genuinely inquire what she needed to do to better help the team.
She became both a trusted confidant for teammates and a respected go-between for the coaching staff. Add in a work ethic that stood out and Gruss was a natural choice to captain the Illini.
“Many of us looked up to her because she was pushing every single day and she never let any of us slack off,” Eaton said. “Once she started getting the hang of it it was no more ‘you’re teaching me’ it’s ‘we’re going to push each other.’ She brought so much of that to our team and that was something we really needed.”
Gruss tried out for Team USA three times before she made the cut. Throughout that process, Team USA coach Trooper Johnson took notice of Gruss’ determination and steady improvement and kept inviting her back.
After Gruss made the team, that background gave Johnson the confidence to hand her her next assignment.
The current Team USA squad is younger than normal. Four were still in high school when the team was announced in February. One, Ixhelt Gonzalez of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Chicago Skyhawks, is 13 years old.
When picking captains, Johnson prioritized maturity, communication skills and the spirit of a teacher.
Gruss checked all the boxes.
“She’s still pretty young, even though she’s one of the more mature athletes,” Johnson said. “She’s incredibly intelligent and incredibly patient with them. She helps them understand the process that’s going on instead of the emotional aspect of the game.
“She’s not telling her teammates what do to. She’s showing them how to do it.”
Gruss hasn’t given up outdoor sports. She likes monoskiing, in which she can use outriggers affixed with ski poles to control a wheelchair affixed with skis.
Actually, maybe pump the brakes on monoskiing. The last time out, she ended up with a concussion.
“The joke is I’m not allowed to do anything on the snow anymore,” Gruss said.
Gruss has bigger indoor goals right now anyway. At the World Championships in Hamburg she’ll try to help Team USA avenge its championship-game loss to Canada in last year’s America’s Cup in Colombia. She wants to help this young team grow into a gold medal contender at the 2020 Paralympics, held in conjunction with the Olympics in Tokyo.
Gruss and others, however, envision a more mainstream presence for the sport.
Only four colleges — Illinois, Alabama, Texas-Arlington and Wisconsin-Whitewater — sponsor wheelchair basketball clubs for women. Gruss, who said she put in as much time as any able-bodied basketball player at Illinois, wants that number to grow. She’s also seen professional leagues overseas, and the crowds those games draw compared to what she’s seen in the states.
Gruss once planned to set basketball aside, then had it taken away from her forever. Now, it’s one of the forces driving her forward.
“I look at a lot of things as little challengers in life I want to beat,” Gruss said. “It was just another challenge. It wasn’t little by any means, but it was something I wanted to do.
“There was always something else I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t want this to hold me back.”
Source: Journal & Courier
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