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David Ramsey: Stephanie Johnson pushes Army's basketball team toward 3rd straight Warrior Games title

June 4, 2018 Updated: June 5, 2018 at 6:31 am
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Stephanie Johnson practices before wheelchair basketball competition at Warrior Games. (Photo by Mark Reis. Courtesy of Department of Defense)

Army’s wheelchair basketball team is a wonder. The players execute superb fast breaks and pick and rolls.  They can score inside and outside. And they’re hungry. They want to win their third straight Warrior Games title.

Stephanie Johnson, 28, resides in the middle of this highly disciplined attack. She’s an imaginative passer, a strong shooter, an attentive defender. She pushed her team to a 47-14 win over the Marines in Tuesday’s prelims at the Air Force Academy. The wheelchair basketball finals will be played Saturday.

For Johnson, the game revived her spirits. On June 18, 2013 in Afghanistan, rocket propelled grenades caused severe injuries to both of her legs. On July 1, 2016, the lower half of her right leg was amputated.

She had been a high school basketball star in Toledo, Ohio. She played tennis and volleyball. She ran track.

She was devastated.

“Before I started adaptive sports,” she said, "I was in a very dark place. You know, once you get injured, your whole life changes, you don’t know where you’re going from there.

“But through adaptive sports, I was able to find my way. I know I got something to look forward to.”

The Warrior Games is more celebration than competition. The competitors share so much. They’ve sacrificed. They’ve suffered. They’ve adapted. They’ve triumphed. After games, these opponents hug each other with a rare and genuine fervor.

“To be here at the Warrior Games,” Johnson said, “it’s not all about winning. At the end of the day, these are your brothers and sisters, they’ve all been through the same thing as you and you become one.”

But don’t get fooled:

The competition at this celebration is fierce.

In many ways, the wheelchair version of the game is more complicated than the traditional version. Injured United States veterans developed wheelchair basketball in 1945, and the sport soon was embraced all over the world. It was introduced on the global stage at the Rome 1960 Paralympic Games.

The offensive team often uses blocking techniques to surround defenders and free up shooters. The weaving and passing are intricate and precise.  

And the intensity often roars to the limits.

Brent Garlic, 39, is Johnson’s teammate.

“The game allows me to bring my animal side out that you can’t bring out in the real world,” Garlic said. “It lets me get that out in a positive way. The anger and anything that’s on my shoulders, I get to let it out on the floor.”

 Johnson plays the game with a noble calm, but there’s no doubt she’s having fun. After her injuries, she believed her athletic career had ended.

Now, she’s part of a magnificent squad battling for a three-peat.

“After the injury, everything changed for me,” she said. “I didn’t want to play wheelchair basketball, I wanted to play standup basketball.”

She paused.

“Once I learned the game, I found that it’s almost just like standup basketball. All the fundamentals are there. You’re just in the chair.”

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