The University of Alabama is known for its championship athletic teams. Football, gymnastics, softball and so on; but there is another group of athletes on campus who are also champions, although they do not draw crowds like Coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide football team. They are the Rolling Tide and they are part of the University of Alabama’s Adapted Athletics program.
Most mornings at the recreation center on UA’s Tuscaloosa campus you can see a pick-up basketball game being played, and the squeak of shoes on the floor is commonplace. However, a few courts down players are gliding across the court silently on wheels. These are member of the University of Alabama’s wheelchair basketball teams. And what they lack in squeak, they make up for with loud crashes as chairs battle for position.
Cobi Crispin is an Australian player for the women’s team at UA. She says the game is a bit rougher than most expect, but for her, that is the best part.
“I absolutely love the aggression, it’s a non-contact sport but we smash into each other all the time and we’re always hitting the deck and it’s a lot of fun. I often get fouled out because I’m a bit aggressive, but it’s just me being passionate.”
When these wheelchair athletes take to the court, referee Maurice Sanders is in the middle of it all. He says there is a difference between contact in this sport versus stand-up basketball where the players run around.
“A lot of contact in wheelchair, you let it go, but able-bodied people you stop it. So you’ve got to determine if there is an advantage or disadvantage being gained or lost one way or the other to determine if there is a foul or not.”
U-A’s program has a far reach. Many players from all over the world come to play their college ball here. Crispin says college athletics aren’t as emphasized overseas as they are in the United States.
“It’s a real honor to play at the college level. It’s a unique experience just because we don’t really have anything like it in the rest of the world,” says Crispin. “There is a professional league in Europe and it’s pretty competitive, but to mix an education with a sport you play it’s something we don’t get in Australia at the level you guys do here so I’m pretty lucky.”
When she isn’t playing for the university, Crispin is one of many foreign players on the Rolling Tide who also play for their national teams back home. She is one of several paralympians competing on the world stage.
“I’ve been to two Paralympic games, Beijing and then London in 2012. We got a bronze medal in Beijing and a silver medal in London. Hopefully we’ll win the whole set in Rio and bring home the gold.”
The Adapted Athletics program at U-A began eleven years ago when current AA director Brent Hardin made his way to Tuscaloosa. He says he had support from the very beginning.
“Sometimes things are just meant to be and they just work out, I know that sounds kinda corny or cheesy but I really believe in that. When we started the program back in 2003 I came here with my wife and we went to faculty orientation and that is where we met Dr. Witt, it was his first year too.”
Dr. Robert Witt was president of the University of Alabama at the time. Hardin says Witt had some experience dealing with this type of sport before.
“He had been exposed to wheelchair athletics at the University of Texas at Arlington before he came here and he just got it right away and he wanted to support us right away. We didn’t have anything but an idea but he got behind it and really saw it as a bright light for the university.”
Hardin says even when Witt moved on to become chancellor of the University of Alabama system; he still has support from the higher ups like Dr. Judy Bonner.
Some of the players on Alabama’s teams have played basketball before and after injuries left them disabled. That includes Karolina Lingyte of Lithuania. She’s been playing wheelchair basketball for five years and the transition was hard at first.
“It is different because everything you do is with your hands plus you can stop people from getting to a different place where you can’t do that in stand-up basketball because they can move around you and with a chair,” says Karolina. “It’s a bigger space and it’s easier to keep people in the place you want them to be.”
She adds, it was the mechanics that took the most getting used to.
“You get into something new where you don’t have any idea how to do things, how things work, how it moves, how the chair moves, how everything is different, it was tough getting over that first bump.”
Players are given a ranking based on their physical abilities from 1.0 to 4.5. To keep things fair, teams are only allowed to have players with rankings totally twelve points on the court at a time.
Both men’s and women’s teams at the University of Alabama have won national titles, and both will be playing in the national collegiate tournament this week.