On a local basketball court, Ixhelt Gonzalez is working on her shot. She hopes it will one day be her ticket to the Paralympics.
The 13-year-old eighth-grader from Chicago’s South Deering neighborhood has been invited by the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team to try out in January at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a spot on the national team.
“I feel nervous and excited,” Ixhelt said during a recent practice at Mann Park in the Hegewisch neighborhood, where she was preparing for the tryout in hopes of becoming one of 12 players named to the roster. The team will compete in the 2018 World Championships in Germany, one step toward the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
It’s unusual to invite such a young athlete to try out, said Trooper Johnson, head coach of the women’s national wheelchair basketball team, which won the gold medal in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Johnson said he saw how well Ixhelt performed at the development camp in November.
“She was able to hold her ground, and in some cases outplay some of the older athletes. Her potential for growth and development is huge,” Johnson said in an email. “Even if she does not make this team, we have an opportunity to continue to help develop her as we look toward Tokyo and beyond.”
When Ixhelt was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with femoral anteversion, a condition in which the thigh bone is twisted inward. She doesn’t need a wheelchair to get around in her daily life but uses one when she’s on the basketball court, which makes her eligible for adaptive sports.
Ixhelt, a forward, is one of 11 players — and the only girl — on her team, which uses full-size courts and 10-foot-tall hoops at Rainbow Beach Park in South Chicago, the sole Chicago Park District location to offer the sport to youth in partnership with the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a research hospital in Streeterville.
When Ixhelt started playing wheelchair basketball at age 7, she was shy and reluctant to touch the ball. But her coach encouraged her to stick with it. She excelled and helped her team, the Chicago Skyhawks, win the national title for the junior prep division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association in the 2015-16 season. Then, she got promoted to the team’s junior 10-foot division.
“I really want to be a part of this sport, (have) this sport in my life forever because I really love this sport,” said Ixhelt, who hopes to play at the college level. The ultimate prize would be the Paralympic Games: “2020 is my long-term goal,” she said.
Her coach, Daniel Ferreira, said Ixhelt is naturally gifted, able to anticipate where she needs to be on the court, handles the ball well and creates plays to pass to an open teammate.
“She’s probably the best defender on our team right now,” he said. “She’s got this fire to her game. There’s a passion there, but it’s controlled.”
The trip to Colorado will expose her to elite level coaching and mentors, he said. “I don’t know if she’ll make the team, but I know she’ll be better for the experience,” said Ferreira, the Park District’s adaptive sport program and event facilitator.
If she makes the team, her mother’s only condition is that Ixhelt not let her grades slip.
“I could not be more proud. As a parent, you want only the best for your kids,” said Tomasa Gonzalez.
She said she’s seen her daughter become more independent by traveling without her to camps, making friends with players in other states and being responsible by arriving on time for practice and listening to coaches.
One of Ixhelt’s Chicago Skyhawks teammates is her 19-year-old brother Guillermo, who has cerebral palsy. As his sister gears up for the tryouts, he acts as her personal trainer, counting the number of baskets made and laps she does up and down the court in 12 minutes.
“Hopefully she’ll make it, but if she doesn’t I’ll still be proud of her because she’s family,” he said.
Wheelchair basketball is one of a dozen adaptive sports and recreation programs offered by the Chicago Park District for individuals with disabilities. Participation in adaptive sports has increased locally. More than 230 individuals played last year, representing a 33 percent increase from 2015, according to the Park District.
Adaptive sports can be empowering, teaching athletes self-discipline and to not be defined by their disabilities, said Ferreira, who uses a wheelchair and has osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by bones that break easily.
“I was that typical kid that said, ‘Why God, why me?’ ” he said, before finding sports at 15. He went on to be the assistant coach for various college wheelchair basketball teams and the U.S. men’s national team.
“Everything good in my life happened because of the sport,” he said. “It gave me purpose. It gave me confidence. It gave me the ability to look myself in the mirror and be OK with what I saw.”