Four years ago, Loraine Gonzales reached the pinnacle of her sport when her U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team captured the gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
Saturday’s accomplishment at the Olympic Training Center, even without an Olympic gold medal, ranked right up there after leading the University of Arizona squad to a 33-30 win over the Denver Lady Rolling Nuggets to win the women’s division of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association national tournament.
Gonzales scored 16 of her game-high 18 points in the second half, Arizona withstood a last-second shot and the former Winnsboro (Texas) High School standout finally earned NWBA top billing.
“I’ve been playing in this league for nine years, but never had won a championship,” said Gonzales, 34, who lost her right leg to amputation after a torn ACL and bone infections that resulted in a staggering 40 surgeries. “I’ve been in Beijing and played professionally overseas. Wheelchair basketball has opened up great opportunities for me. Winning here, I can’t explain the feeling. It’s awesome.”
Natalie Schneider certainly knows that feeling. The statistician from Ord., Neb., led the Lady Nuggets to last year’s title. But Saturday, the cancer survivor with a right knee and part of her femur made of titanium had to settle for second after a 12-point effort left her team just short.
“They feel ecstatic,” said Schneider, whose husband, Dan, is an assistant coach on the team, responsible for everything from stats to fetching water. “I know all those girls, and they worked very hard for it. Right now, they’re feeling better than me.”
After three years in Denver, the NWBA staged its 64th annual national championship tournament in Colorado Springs in a four-day event that included teams in six divisions that, by the time things wrap up Sunday, will have combined to play 168 games.
Despite her despair, Schneider has plenty to look forward to. Earlier this year, she was again selected to represent her country at the upcoming Paralympic Games in London with hopes of the U.S. team defending its gold medal, something she too was a part of in Beijing.
At 29, she feels she’s at her prime in the sport, managing to balance athletics and her profession as a statistician for marketing company. Her only regret is not being introduced to the sport until she was out of college.
“We have great college programs in our state,” Schneider said. “I was in graduate school when I first heard about wheelchair basketball since I can’t run and jump anymore with the implant. I just wish I would have discovered this sooner.”
Dan Schneider, a family practice physician, knew about wheelchair basketball but wasn’t prepared for what he’d eventually see in the women’s game.
“I had no idea how competitive wheelchair basketball is,” he said, “and how good the athletes are. The speed gets you first. You think it’ll be much slower paced until you see it in person. That’s what really surprised me.”