As the team’s athletic trainer, Karla Wessels, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Director of Georgetown College’s Athletic Training Program, was on the sidelines when the USA women’s wheelchair basketball squad brought home the gold at the recently-completed Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Going undefeated and receiving the gold after defeating Germany 62-45 was the culmination of four years of preparation by the dozen members of the team and their coaches and athletic trainer, Dr. Wessels.
“We had been having training camps and competitions to train and qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio,” said Dr. Wessels, who explained that athletes for the Olympics and Paralympics have to do similar things to compete at the games. They must train for at least four years and they have to qualify. “We trained in Colorado Springs, Birmingham, and Lake Placid, NY. We competed in Colorado Springs, Lake Placid, and Toronto as well as Hamburg and Frankfurt (Germany).”
Prior to joining the faculty of Georgetown College in 2014, Dr. Wessels was working at the University of Illinois for the wheelchair basketball team. The head coach of that team, Stephanie Wheeler, with whom Dr. Wessels had a solid working relationship, was picked to serve as head coach of the national team. Coach Wheeler then asked Dr. Wessels to serve as athletic trainer for the national team.
“The most exciting thing (for me) was watching my team win gold because no one believed we could do it two years ago,” said Dr. Wessels. “When we competed at World’s in 2014 (World ParaAthletics Championships), we placed fourth. The girls needed to do a lot of work in those two years since the World’s to even make a medal game. They not only stepped up to the challenge but conquered it. They did everything that was asked of them and came together as a team. Seeing all of that unfold has been most exciting.”
As an athletic trainer, Dr. Wessels specializes in concussions, balance, and treatments for people with physical disabilities. She said it was her responsibility with the women’s wheelchair basketball team to help the members compete at their highest level by hopefully preventing but then treating any injuries that might occur. Fortunately, there were none, so she primarily worked to loosen muscle cramps and increase mobility and flexibility.
“We were fortunate that we did not have any big challenges that we had to face,” she said. “We prepared ourselves not only on the court but off the court to minimize any distractions and make sure we controlled everything that we could.”
Since the Paralympics were held after the start of the fall academic term at Georgetown College, it became necessary for Dr. Wessels to conduct classes online. Her lectures were recorded and she was available to students by phone and email. Her work with athletes with physical disabilities is integrated into her teaching. Through the athletic training program in Kinesiology and Health Studies, she and her students have volunteered at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Louisville for the last two years.
“This gives the students the chance to work with athletes with physical disabilities and exposes them to more opportunities,” she said. “In class, we also often talk about adaptations and ways we may do things differently to work with this population.”
Looking ahead to the next Paralympics, Dr. Wessels says she would love to do it again. “From time to time, I will still be doing events in the states whenever I am asked. I will know more when the staff is chosen for the next Paralympics cycle.”
As for the Paralympics in Rio, Dr. Wessels said, “It was huge for me to just be there working as a medical professional. There are very few medical professionals that get to go, and I am very fortunate that I was one of them.”
“We are very proud and grateful that Dr. Wessels has had the opportunity to apply her knowledge abroad and work with one of our Olympic teams,” said an excited Jean Kiernan, Associate Professor, who chairs the Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies. “And, not only did the basketball team perform excellently, they went undefeated and won the gold!”
Basketball has been a part of the Paralympic Games since 1960. Paralympics for athletes with physical disabilities are held every four years in conjunction with the Olympics. Though originally played only by men with spinal cord injuries, now both men’s and women’s teams throughout the world, with a variety of disabilities, compete in the sport.
Paralympic basketball competition is open to male and female athletes with physical disabilities such as amputation/limb loss, spinal cord injury/wheelchair-users, cerebral palsy/brain injury/stroke and other orthopedic and locomotor disabilities. The sport is governed by the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF).