Monday, August 20, 2012

JMU grad gets her own shot at Olympic Gold

Andrea Woodson-Smith has visions of bringing home Gold.

The James Madison graduate, a member of Team USA Women's Paralympic Basketball team, is Olympic-bound on Thursday. The 2012 Paralympics  start Aug. 27 and conclude Sept. 8 in London. Queen Elizabeth will open the Games for only the second time in history.

Woodson-Smith wasn't a household name at JMU, where injuries derailed her basketball career. In addition to being hampered by arthritis, she was undercut while going for a rebound, leading to three hip fractures. Today with a bachelor's from JMU (1994), a master's from NC Central (1999) and a doctorate from Texas Women's College (2006) -- she is an assistant professor at NC Central, teaching adaptive physical education and individualizing exercise programs for the disabled.

Woodson-Smith can walk but is confined to a wheelchair for basketball. Wheelchair basketball follows most of the same rules as the able-bodied game, with players having to throw or bounce the ball after every two pushes of the chair.

"It's harder in that you might know the game, but you have to be able to maneuver the chair," Woodson-Smith said. "Being able to do that is really hard, especially for somebody who has their full body like myself and who is 6-3 -- mostly legs. Most of my teammates are paraplegic and acquired their injury at a very young age, so their bottom half didn't grow as strong as their top half. Their chairs are really short versus my chair, which is pretty long."

It took Woodson-Smith a year to learn how to work the chair effectively. She's made regular drives from her Durham, N.C., home to Charlotte and Texas to find competition and to Wisconsin and Alabama to train for these Games. Her first chance at Olympic Gold came eight years ago when she was on the verge of going to Beijing as a member of Team USA.

But two weeks prior to leaving, her physical was rejected. Doctors feared she had Marfan syndrome. She didn't. "But they wouldn't sign off," she said.

After both parents were diagnosed with cancer, Woodson-Smith retired from the sport, missing her chance at the Paralympics four years ago in Mexico. She came out of retirement in 2009 with her eyes on the 2012 Games.

"I'm nervous and making sure I don't do anything stupid to hurt myself, so I don't spoil my chance to go," she said.

Her forte now is the same as it was in her high school and college days: rebounding. Still, her most famous moment is a blocked shot in the waning seconds of the World Championships that secured a two-point win for the U.S. team over Germany two years ago. Yet as much as she's grown to enjoy the wheelchair game, she misses the simplicity of the basketball she grew up playing.

"There's a lot of political issues involved in wheelchair basketball, and it's very expensive," Woodson-Smith said. "What we do comes right out of our own pocket. We can't go to a gym and pay membership fees and play. You've got to find a gym where nobody is playing where you can get on the court. You've got to pay for your equipment. That part is very frustrating."

For a long while, she couldn't watch the WNBA. Now she's moved on in life, embracing the chance to make her own history. The United States meets France in its first game on Aug. 27. Ten teams are in the event, including The Netherlands, Great Britain, China, Australia and Mexico. The opening games will be in Basketball Arena in Olympic Park with the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship in North Greenwich Arena. The U.S. team has won back-to-back golds.

Says Woodson-Smith, "Root for Team USA."

LadySwish is rooting for Woodson-Smith, too.

1 comment:

  1. An inspiring story. Go Dukes! Go USA!