“Wheelchair basketball opened my eyes to what I could do”
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE. IMAGES LAURIE WILLIAMS
Just days before the organisers of Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the expected postponement of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic games, we spoke to wheelchair basketball player and Paralympian Laurie Williams, 28, as she waited for for the official announcement…
Now that we know the games will be taking place, “no later than summer 2021”, it looks like we’ll all have to wait a little longer to see the Manchester-based Williams dunk Team GB to glory… but while we wait, why don’t we get to know her a little better?
DIVA: Hello Laurie. How are you fairing amid suggestions that Tokyo 2020 will be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic?
LAURIE WILLIAMS: You know, I’m alright. As of yesterday, all of our training got cancelled because the building we are based in has shut down, so we’ve been given instructions of what to do at home. You know, it is what it is and [at the end of the day], people’s health is more important.
When we initially organised this call, it was to chat about the Pride In Sport vlog you were going to be making while in Tokyo. What’s the latest news you’ve had on the games?*
We’ve not heard anything official. They’ll probably have to make a decision sooner rather than later – people need to know like, “How is my training going to be impacted?” A lot of us already can’t train which will impact performance so there is pressure on them to make a decision.
*Just days after speaking to Laurie, it’s been announced that Tokyo 2020, both the Olympics and the Paralympics, have been postponed because of coronavirus.
In light of everything, how are you keeping your training routine up?
We’re quite lucky actually as, my partner Robyn and I, we live in Manchester and that’s where the National Basketball Performance Centre is and that hasn’t closed down yet [DIVA: See the NBPC website for current advice] so we still have access to that. But once that does close and gyms close, we’ve been given gym-based things to do outside – if we can get outside. We’ll all have to adapt.
Yeah, wheelchair basketball is probably not something you want to practice in your living room…
Not really! [Laughs]
Well, as looking forward is a little tricky at the moment, how about let’s look back – how did you get into wheelchair basketball?
I actually started off doing a bit of wheelchair racing, though not very seriously, because my brother used to run with an athletics club and my parents were really keen to get me doing exercise. PE at school was a bit of a no-go. I wasn’t really doing anything.
They weren’t able to put anything in place during PE lessons?
No, there wasn’t a lot of support. I did have a support worker and they would try and help when we played netball and hockey. It was fine because I was relatively athletic, but they didn’t know how to adapt things [for someone in a wheelchair] so it wasn’t enjoyable. Then the athletics club entered me into the Greater Manchester youth games because, at the time, they had a small disability sport section. So yeah! I went there and did a few races, and then I met a wheelchair basketball coach there and she was like, “You need to come down and try basketball – it’s a lot better than this!” I was like, wow, “Okay – I’m going to give that a go!”
Was it love at first dunk?
Yeah! I’d never done anything with other children with physical disabilities, so to be on a court with other kids who were disabled in some way was really nice. It was good for my parents as well, because they got to chat with other parents and learn from them. It opened my eyes to what I could do and what I should be doing. I was around 11 years old at that time.
At what point did you realise this might be something you could do seriously?
Well, I played recreationally for a couple of years and then, maybe when I hit around 13 or 14 years old, my coach was like: “You’ve got a natural gift.” At the time, women’s wheelchair basketball wasn’t massive, so when a young woman came through with potential, they’d be picked up quickly. My name was mentioned a lot and, by the time I was around 14, they were fast tracking me for the national programme. I finally got into the women’s team when I was 16 years old.
That’s young. How was that experience?
It was really interesting! I trained with them once when I was 15, but I wasn’t quite ready. Like I said though, the talent pool wasn’t big, so that same summer of 2008, they put me down as a reserve for the Beijing Paralympic Games! I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s cool. Imagine if I go? That would be awesome!” In fact, my family and I went on holiday that summer and, [while we were away], someone rang my mum and said, “Someone’s dropped out – does Laurie want to go?” And then I remember being like, “Oh God, no I don’t want to go!” I didn’t know the team and, I just knew I wasn’t ready yet. It was a good decision because it would have had a negative impact on my basketball career rather than a positive, because the following year I made the team and it absolutely felt like the right time.
And then you competed in the 2012 London Paralympics – what a great first experience of that world.
It was incredible. When I look back, I think the opportunity to go to a games in your home nation is unbelievable.
It’s a great place to start.
It really was. At the time, I wanted to travel and compete in loads of different countries, but I think having done London, it was just incredible. I went onto the Rio Paralympics in 2016 and, it’s just not comparable at all.
Like, London really smashed it out the water. And to have a home crowd behind you… [trails off] We didn’t actually perform so well, it wasn’t our time – the programme has come on leaps and bounds since then – but it really meant something to us.
And, of course, you’ve also found love in the game – quite literally – with your teammate-turned-fiancée Robyn Love. When did you first cross paths?
It was five or six years ago, Robyn had just started playing the game. She’d come from the able bodied game and was very talented, and so my team had invited her down to the national team camp. I was based in the States at the time and, at the same time that I came over from the States, Robyn came down from Scotland – and we ended up sharing a hotel room! [Laughs] We chatted for ages and really got to know each other. When I went back to the States, we kept on talking and grew to really like one another. Soon after, the programme moved down to Worcester and I was given the ultimatum of, “If you want to make the team, you have to move to Worcester.” I was due back from the States anyway, so we were just like, “Shall we move in together?” [Laughs] Thankfully it worked out!
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She said yes… 💍 The moment I almost managed to get down on one knee! ➡️ I’m so happy to be marrying my best friend ♥️ . I’ve been planning this for so long and I cannot believe I pulled it off without her suspecting a thing. Trying to convince Laurie to go on the grass so I could take a ‘picture’ was so hard! She was having none of it… As you can tell from her face 😂 I think she was glad that I did though… I know I am ♥️ . . . . . . . #howsheasked #isaidyes #engayged #twobrides #mrsandmrs #globalgaygirlgang #misstomrs #dancingwithher #parisproposal #eiffeltowerproposal #samesexwedding #lgbtweddings #lgbt #loveislove #lovewins #proposalphotography #proposalideas #proposalvideo #sapphire #sapphireengagementring #sapphirering #downononeknee #repost
Lovely! Is wheelchair basketball itself particularly LGBTQI+ friendly? Or is that just women’s sport generally?
There are a number of LGBTQI+ athletes in the community. I don’t know if that’s just reflective of women’s sport as a whole, but we’re a few – and we all know each other! I’m not sure I would say the same about the men’s game, however, but men’s sports in general is a different kettle of fish [when it comes to being LGBTQI+].
Do you have any tips for DIVA readers who might like give wheelchair basketball a go?
What’s great about wheelchair basketball is, a lot of people don’t realise it’s really inclusive – you can play if you have a disability, you can play if you don’t. At the end of the day, it’s just another sport for people to play.
What else do you personally love about the sport?
How physical it is! It’s not meant to be a contact sport, but it is a lot of the time. It’s also really competitive and can be quite aggressive. I like that part of the sport!
Is there anything that’s particularly tricky to master as a beginner?
There are so many components to it – it’s not just like athletics where you run a race. You have to learn to deal with the ball, to pass, defend and attack and for a lot of people – especially people who are able bodied or have never used a chair before – making that transition to using a chair is one of the hardest things to get to grips with!
Want to find out more? Check out the British Wheelchair Basketball website to find a club near you #BritishWheelchairBasketball
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