Zeman makes Team USA wheelchair basketball squad

In just over two years, Anoka graduate and University of Illinois sophomore Kendra Zeman has gone from wheelchair basketball rookie to a member of USA Basketball’s 2013 High Performance Women’s Wheelchair basketball team.

Updating a story from nearly two years ago, Zeman continues to make strides on the off the basketball court.

Kendra Zeman looks to make a play during practice with her University of Illinois teammates.  Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois

Kendra Zeman looks to make a play during practice with her University of Illinois teammates.
Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois

She was not only selected to the 2013 USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team but this summer she’s completing a research internship at the University of Cincinnati on biofuels, working with a professor on a sustainable urban environment project.

On the basketball court, the 6-1 Zeman was the starting post for the Illini which placed third at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association championship this spring with a very young team.

“There is still a lot of getting used to each other and understanding how to play together,” she said, aside from still learning how to use her wheelchair to her benefit on the court. “The hardest thing for me right now is coming from an able-bodied person, I don’t have the chair skills others who use their chairs every day do. I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable with my reaction speed and focusing on the inside game.”

Kendra Zeman is a sophomore at the University of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois.

Kendra Zeman is a sophomore at the University of Illinois. Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois.

She’s added a tilt move to her repertoire.

“I’ve recently been able to throw myself on one wheel which gives me more defensive range,” Zeman said who isn’t limited to her wheelchair off the court.

Her shooting has come along and learning a new defensive mind set that focuses on anticipation and being in the right place on the floor came from plenty of practice time. The Illini typically practice two hours five days a week with two more sessions for individualized training and additional weight lifting sessions.

“It’s really the equivalent to the able-body basketball schedule,” Zeman said about the schedule of being part of the first wheelchair basketball program, established in 1948 by Dr. Timothy Nugent.

The process to earn a spot on Team USA included an invitation to tryout, which she graciously accepted from Illinois coach Stephanie Wheeler, who also coaches the national team. Tryouts took place at an Olympic/paralympic facility called Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala. Tryouts included eight-hour sessions over three and a half days followed by an announcement of who made the final cut and who didn’t. Zeman was selected to the team and will have to go through the tryout process each year she wants to be a part of the group.

The national program has a tournament scheduled against Germany at the end of May but Zeman will not take part because of her ongoing internship. Two additional national camps will take place in July and October at the Lakeshore Foundation.

Through a second gruelling season of collegiate wheelchair basketball, followed by the intensity of trying out for the national team, Zeman said the toughest part is dealing with blisters on her hands.

“It was a physically intense but wonderful experience but I have up to 15-20 blisters on my hands that broke through calluses,” she said.

In an attempt to continue to mainstream the sport, Zeman, along with teammates and friends, are advocating the addition of wheelchair basketball as an officially sanctioned NCAA sport. Last week she joined a group that lobbied the NCAA’s Inclusion Conference, showing what disability sports are really like.

“People have an idea of what we are about and it’s a good-feeling thing where in reality we’re incredibly competitive, just as competitive as any other able-bodied sport,” she said. “One thing we’re definitely working on is to show people with disabilities aren’t weak or helpless.”

Zeman continued to say that her own perception on disability has changed.

“I describe it as someone wearing glasses. It’s not the defining part of who they are as a person,” she said. “We’re still in the early stages of working on the program.”

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