When Shawna Culp received a phone call last summer asking her if she wanted to compete in the inaugural O&P Extremity Games by College Park – and tackle a 24-foot rock climbing wall – she agreed without giving it a second thought. But there was one problem. She was a basketball player and had only rock climbed one time – and that was just for fun.
Mere details as far as Culp was concerned. A tremendously talented athlete, Culp was no stranger to the demands of competition. So when last July’s games had come to a close and Culp had a bronze medal hanging around her neck and an oversized check tucked under her arm, it wasn’t much of a shocker.
Culp, 18 years old from Wheaton, Ill., lost her right leg above the knee when she was 10 years old after complications following a limb salvage procedure she had had when she was 8 years old and recovering from osteosarcoma. It was then that Culp began to venture into the world of athletics, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Learning the ropes
She began playing wheelchair basketball shortly after her amputation surgery and realized immediately that she had a knack for it.
“I started playing wheelchair basketball a couple months after my amputation. … The first time I played was in a tournament; I didn’t even go to a practice. I had no idea what was going on at all but I really liked the people and I liked the idea of the game so I stuck with it. It took a couple years for me to really get into it,” she said.
To say Culp really got into wheelchair basketball would be a gross understatement. Currently a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, she was the nation’s most sought-after recruit this past year and will be headed to the University of Illinois (considered the premier wheelchair basketball program in the country) in the fall. After attending several intensive basketball camps at the University of Illinois, Culp said she felt most comfortable there, finding a healthy mix of strong academics paired with a top-notch basketball program.
Becoming an elite athlete
Another notable reason Culp opted for the University of Illinois is its reputation as a pipeline to the U.S. National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team. Culp has been named as an alternate to the national team several times in the past 3 years, including a stint as an alternate on the 2004 Paralympic team that competed in Athens, as well as competing at the 2006 Gold Cup (equivalent to the World Championships) in Amsterdam, where her alternate status paid off and she was able to play when two girls went down shortly before the games began. Culp and her teammates came home with the silver medal.
Recently, she returned from Birmingham, Ala., where she took part in a weekend-long national team tryout camp held at the Lakeshore Foundation, an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training facility. She was again named as an alternate to the team for this summer’s Parapan American Games held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Culp hopes to finally break through and be named a member of the team for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. She believes being a part of the Illini’s wheelchair basketball team will allow her to improve to the point where she will have a shot at becoming a Paralympic medalist.
“I want to go to college for basketball because they really train you for where you want to go, which is the Paralympics. I know going to U of I is going to train me so that I hopefully make the 2008 team,” Culp said. “There [at U of I], they have really high-level athletes. They work hard and are really intelligent and when they come together to play wheelchair basketball they are just phenomenal.”
Sending a message
Culp’s work ethic and background of competing against the nation’s elite allowed her to excel when she arrived in Orlando, Fla. for last year’s Extremity Games. It also gave her a chance to try something new.
“The Extremity Games was a lot of fun because I got to try out sports using my legs because I am so used to doing adaptive sports where I’ll be in a wheelchair,” she said.
Culp believes the Extremity Games offers disabled athletes something unique and at the same time serves as a vehicle to make a statement.
“The Extremity Games has a beautiful philosophy,” she said. “The edge that people don’t expect from people in wheelchairs or with disabilities to have, we have. We come out and we dirt bike, rock climb and wakeboard – and we are doing it with one leg or missing a foot. It sends a message,” Culp said.
Culp’s performance also sent an uplifting message to future Extremity Games athletes: do not be afraid to give something new a try. A member of the Super-Gimps organization (the brainchild of Rick Lewis and Damian Buchman, which encourages disabled athletes to push beyond their perceived bounds) Culp knew the games were not just about winning and losing, but rather about proving, to disabled and able-bodied people alike, that anything is possible.
“The Super-Gimps is something I want to stick with because its message is so amazing. It is the same as the Extremity Games – being a hero to other people and showing them that just because we have a disability does not mean that we don’t have any ability – if anything, we have more ability.”
Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor of O&P Business News.