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The City Journals

Cottonwood High senior makes the U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team

Apr 09, 2018 04:46PM ● By Carl Fauver

Ali Ibanez (in blue) mixes it up during one of her recent wheelchair basketball games. (Scot Goodman)

With the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics now behind us in PyeongChang, South Korea, international sports interest—for many Americans—is now shifting 640 miles east of there, to Tokyo, home of the 2020 Olympic Summer Games.

After all, how many of us give international competition much thought between the every-other-year, winter-summer Olympic Games?

Cottonwood High School senior Ali Ibanez certainly will be.

“I was thrilled to be selected for the U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team this year,” Ali said. “But my real goal is to make the 2020 Paralympic team…and I’m a long way from that.”

Well, not as far away as a few other people—like the other 28 girls and women who were originally invited to tryout for the national team. The U.S. team that will compete for the 2018 World Wheelchair Basketball Championship, in Hamburg, Germany, consists of 12 women.

Still awaiting her high school diploma, 18-year-old Ali is the second youngest member of the team, coached by National Wheelchair Basketball Association Hall of Famer Trooper Johnson.

“We selected the youngest (women’s wheelchair national) team we ever have this year,” Johnson said. “Ali showed us incredible potential and she is very coachable. She learns quickly and helps to make everyone else on the team better. There are still a few tryouts ahead for her (if she is to make the 2020 Paralympic team). But we are looking at her incredible growth potential, and I think she has a long playing career ahead.”

Johnson became the national wheelchair team’s head coach last year, after assisting the team in its 2016 gold medal finish in the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. He’s also the only U.S. player to compete on 15 men’s national teams, including four Paralympic teams.

“I feel I was a little lucky to make the team, my first time trying out,” Ali added. “But I plan to work hard to help them and to hold on to my spot.”

Ali’s mother explained that her daughter was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, a congenital disease.

“Normally the disease affects all of a person’s limbs,” Tiffanie Ibanez said. “But with Ali it only affected her lower limbs, which allows her to play sports.”

Tiffanie tells the story of when Ali was just a baby, and unable to walk, she left the infant alone in a room for just a minute.

“When I returned, Ali had climbed up on a desk with a big smile on her face, and I knew nothing was going to stop her in life. She just adapts to challenges and moves on.”

Ali was 13 when she first learned there was such a thing as a wheelchair basketball team in the Salt Lake Valley.

“My older sister was babysitting for a family that lived across the street from Woodstock Elementary School (6015 South 1300 East),” Ali said. “She called me from there to say, ‘You’ve got to hurry over here to see this.’ What she had seen was a wheelchair basketball team arriving and unloading for practice.”

That team, the Utah Rush wheelchair basketball team, is coached by Marilyn Blakley.

“Ali came right over to talk to us,” Blakley said. “And it wasn’t long before she was on our team. The U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team is the most prestigious team any of our Rush players have been on. I’m already looking into whether I can afford to get over to see her play in (the World Championship tournament in) Germany.”

Ali actually plays on two Utah Rush teams, while also completing individual workout assignments for the national team. When she’s not doing all that, Ali maintains a 4.0 GPA at Cottonwood High.

Johnson said the women will gather at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for weeklong training camps in April and May followed by a pair of “friendly” tournaments before the August 16-25 World Championships in Europe.

By then, Ali will also have decided whether she’s going to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Texas-Arlington or the University of Illinois, two of only five schools nationwide that field teams— and fund scholarships—for women’s wheelchair basketball.

“Earning a college degree while playing and making the 2020 Paralympic team are my top two goals right now,” Ali said. “I sure hope they don’t regret picking me (for the 2018 national team). I plan to work hard to make sure they don’t.”

Her mother and coaches Blakley and Johnson all expressed confidence that no one is going to regret giving the girl who pulled herself up on a table as a toddler an opportunity to succeed as a young adult.