BY JOSH SUMAN
Bellevue Reporter Staff
When Bellevue College student Kyle Whitney and his basketball team take the court this week in a tournament featuring top teams from around the country in Louisville, Ky., he will realize a lifelong dream.
An athlete for most of his life, including his prep days at Mount Si High School, Whitney always saw himself on the biggest stages competitive athletics had to offer.
But he never could have imagined how he would get there, or what it would look like when he did.
After a junior year at Mount Si that had him thinking of a future on the baseball diamond, Whitney nearly lost much more than his baseball career.
Feeling the invincibility that characterizes both teenagers and fans of performance automobiles, Whitney was in his new sports car, racing another vehicle on I-90 through the Eastside corridor when he lost control of the vehicle. Without a seatbelt and traveling 120 miles per hour, he was ejected from the cabin, landed in the interstate and was paralyzed on impact.
Coping with a life that would be drastically different in nearly every way imaginable was predictably difficult for the then-teenager, and the pain was compounded by the belief his life in competitive sports was done.
“I thought, there goes all my dreams in athletics,” he said.
Intense months of recovery followed, and Whitney eventually graduated from high school and continued his life in the Snoqualmie Valley, albeit in a wheelchair.
While he had been active throughout his youth and an athlete in high school, it was that same desire for competition that kept him away from wheelchair athletics. He played billiards, where his chair provided no disadvantage and actually left him at eye-level with his shots, but eventually wanted a more physically involved activity.
Like many wheelchair athletes, he quickly moved from spectator to participant at a basketball tournament in Seattle after expecting to merely watch and gain an introduction.
“I thought I was pretty good,” Whitney said. “I realized really quick I wasn’t that great.”
Along with regaining his passion for athletics, playing wheelchair basketball has helped him build connections in the adaptive technology community, especially at the University of Washington’s Student Activities Office.
“It’s really opened up a lot of resources,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about traveling, the facilities and how to deal with those things in a wheelchair.”
He also found himself again part of a team.
After learning the nuances of the game, things like chair positioning and angles on the court, Whitney began playing more seriously and eventually found himself on a team from Seattle Adaptive Sports, an organization that facilitates a variety of wheelchair teams. That group has played in tournaments around the region to earn its spot in Louisville this week, where the top 25 wheelchair basketball teams from around the country will be waiting.
Whitney, who works a sales representative and plans to transfer his credits to UW-Bothell when he is finished at BC, said the group also has hopes of integrating wheelchair basketball into the programming at the student IMA at the University of Washington.
After an upcoming on-campus demonstration of wheelchair basketball for students and others interested in adaptive technology, he and the team are hopeful of bringing it to the existing intramural league, which includes sports like flag football and able-bodied basketball.
A few schools around the country, including the University of Arizona, have full-fledged wheelchair basketball teams that represent the school and are even able to give scholarships to assist with equipment and travel costs along with other expenses.
“UW Medicine is one of the leaders in the nation in spinal cord injuries and rehabilitation,” Whitney said. “I’ve always wanted to go to UW and eventually we want to play for them.”
While the sport is mostly recreational in the United States, Europe has a professional league and Whitney said he has met players who have made a living playing wheelchair basketball overseas. His own goals are much closer to home at UW, but Whitney said the inspiration he has gained from meeting others in his situation who have thrived has made the entire experience worthwhile.
“I have learned to see the world differently,” he said. “There are not a lot of things you can’t do.”