The eyes of the world have been transfixed on the Paralympic Games in London for the last few weeks but closer to home people from Derry, Foreglen and Strabane have been taking part in wheelchair basketball for the last year and a half.
The North West Eagles were founded after charity S.H.I.N.E. (Spina bifida, Hydrocephalus, Information, Networking, Equality) secured funding from the Big Lottery Fund to form a wheelchair basketball group in Derry last year.
Although the Eagles operate under the umbrella of S.H.I.N.E., the group have members with a variety of disabilities and impairments. The group is open to anyone who uses a wheelchair.
Experienced basketball coach, Steve McCrudden, is the Eagles’ head coach and the group currently boast close to 20 members with the youngest being 11 years-old and the oldest being 48.
Perpetua O’Driscoll, (Derry), Elaine Brolly (Foreglen) and Geraldine McGarrigle (Strabane) did not know one another and had never played wheelchair basketball before they joined the Eagles last year.
Perpetua, 33, was born with spina bifida and said that despite the fantastic time she has had with the Eagles, she believes that more could be done to provide wheelchair users with better opportunities.
“I have been a member of S.H.I.N.E. for over 20 years and the support they have given myself and my family has been unbelievable,” she said.
“But that’s not the case for all disabled people and wheelchair users. A lot of people out there feel isolated and never get the chance to experience the support that something like wheelchair basketball offers.
“I didn’t really know anyone in the group before I started playing but soon after joining it started to become a great place to meet up with people who were going through the exact same as me.”
Perpetua said that in light of the recent television coverage of the Paralympic Games in London, she believes that the perception of disabilities and wheelchairs has shifted.
“People can’t help but be inspired when they watch athletes like Jason Smyth [Stargardt disease] or Oscar Pistorius [double leg amputee] compete in the Parlympic Games.
“I definitely think that whilst more could be done, the Games have helped to elevate disabled athletes and challenge perceptions and promote inclusivity.
“At the Eagles we want to forget about disability and concentrate on ability. It’s all about helping one another. Some are better than others but like most sports, it’s a team game.”
Elaine, 23, joined the Eagles at around the same time as Perpetua and Geraldine. Elaine was also born with spina bifida but unlike Perpetua and Geraldine she also has hydrocephalus (water in the brain).
“Before I got involved with the Eagles I only knew two other people who had spina bifida and hydrocephalus,” she said.
“Getting involved with the Eagles has helped me to be much more open about my disability whereas before, I didn’t like talking about it to anyone but now, I find talking about it helps.
“I’d never tried any sort of exercise never mind wheelchair basketball before I joined the Eagles and to be honest I found it very hard at the start but I stuck with it.
“Sometimes, things come up and I’ll miss a training session. I hate when it happens because I enjoy the sessions so much that when I can’t make it, I really feel like I have missed out.
“At the start all I wanted to learn was the basics and wasn’t that fussed about playing but now I, along with many of the others in group, just want to compete,” smiled Elaine.
Geraldine, 48, is the oldest member of the Eagles and said that although she has nothing but praise for head coach Steve McCrudden and S.H.I.N.E., she would like to see local politicians do more for people with disabilities and wheelchair users. Geraldine also has spina bifida.
“Joining the Eagles is perhaps one of the best things I have ever done. I know I am probably old enough to be some of the other members’ mother but it doesn’t stop me from playing, getting involved and enjoying myself,” she laughed.
“The sense of friendship and encouragement within the group is like nothing I have ever experienced before.
“We get a lot of support through S.H.I.N.E. and our head coach Steve McCrudden is an inspiration but like Perpetua and Elaine, I also think that more should be done to make sport more accessible for people in wheelchairs and those who are disabled.
“I was born with spina bifida but it wasn’t until I was 21 years-old that I had to start using a wheelchair for certain things.
“Before I started using my wheelchair I would have played netball at school so from that time to last year I wasn’t really able to do any sort of exercise - I didn’t have an outlet for it.
“When I heard about the Eagles I decided to give it a go and I haven’t looked back since. Although I am still learning the basics, I have to say that I am loving wheelchair basketball - it’s so much fun.”
Steve McCrudden has been playing and coaching basketball for the best part of 15 years. Steve worked for S.H.I.N.E. before taking up his permanent post as head coach of the Eagles.
“I am completely hooked on wheelchair basketball,” said Steve passionately.
“If anyone needed any convincing all they needed to do was watch some of it when it was on during the Paralympic Games - it was top class.”
Steve explained that the funding securing by S.H.I.N.E. from the Big Lottery Fund allows the Eagles to host training sessions for youths and adults every second Saturday.
However, Steve said that the Eagles have generated so much interest that the group have set up their own committee with the view to raising enough money of their own which would hopefully enable them to train on a weekly basis and buy more equipment.
“None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the help and support of S.H.I.N.E. and the Big Lottery Fund.
“The staff at Magee have also been really supportive. I approached them last year and talked to them about get funding to buy 10 specially designed sports wheelchairs. These chairs cost £1,000 each and Magee agreed to buy them.
“Our members make use of the chairs every few weeks when they train but it also means that any wheelchair users who study at Magee can also avail of them when they need to. It’s all about making sport as accessible as possible to people in wheelchairs.”
He added: “The funding we get from the Big Lottery Fund is enough for us to put on training sessions in the main sports hall at Magee every two weeks but the group want to meet up more regularly therefore they set-up a committee.”
Perpetua is committee chairperson, Elaine is the treasurer whilst Geraldine is the group’s Public Relations Officer (P.R.O.).
“It’s up to the committee now to come up with ideas of how we can make training more regular.”
The Eagles are barely 18 months old and already Perpetua, Elaine and Geraldine have their sights set on attracting more new members, competing against other groups and ultimately helping other wheelchair users to realise the benefits of getting involved in sport.
“I really hated it at the start,” said Perpetua.
“I hated training and found it really, really tough but once you get past it, things get better.
“When I am not busy playing basketball with the rest of the Eagles, I park my car at Sainsbury’s and go in my wheelchair the whole way up to the Peace Bridge and back again. It’s tough at times but when I do it I feel great.”
She continued: “I would advise anyone who’s in a wheelchair to give basketball a go. Not only is it a good way to get fit and feel good it’s also a great way of meeting new people and making friends - I have lost count of the amount of times myself and Elaine have spent chatting when we should be playing basketball,” she laughed.
“I am using muscles that I never knew I even had,” smiled Elaine.
“I found it hard in the beginning but my life has changed forever by sticking with it. There’s a great bunch of people within the group and I would tell anyone reading this article who uses a wheelchair to get in contact with us and maybe give the sport a go - what’s the worst that could happen?”
Geraldine said that it’s the group’s dream to move towards competing in an All-Ireland league within the next two years and added that she would be delighted if more people were to show an interest in the sport.
“There are a few other wheelchair basketball teams throughout Ireland and it would be our dream to compete in the Irish League within the next few years.
“In the beginning it was all about participation but as confidence grows we want to compete and we want to win matches,” she grinned.
S.H.I.N.E. welcome donations and funding to help develop their services. If you would like to donate to S.H.I.N.E. text the word “Wear33” with the amount you would like to donate to 70070. Normal text message charges may apply.
The first world Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus day will be held on October 25, 2012; to show your support, wear yellow to raise awareness.
If you would like more information on the North West Eagles or would like to contribute contact Steve McCrudden by telephone: 07852903033, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the group’s Facebook page: North West Eagles Wheelchair Basketball.