THE Australian men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams were officially unveiled in Perth this week, with selectors opting for one of the most experienced contingents Australia has ever fielded in the sport at a Paralympic Games.
The Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) announced the 12-strong squads for both the Rollers (men) and Gliders (women), with just two men and three women set to make their Paralympic debut.
Among those named is 32-year-old Towradgi athlete Nick Taylor.
Like many of his teammates, Taylor competed at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. But unlike members of the gold medal winning Australian team, he did not win a gold medal, instead playing for his native South Africa.
Having now moved to Australia and living in Towradgi, Nick is looking to fulfil his dream and take home gold for his adopted country.
Rated by Australian coach Ben Ettridge as a world class athlete, Nick is a former junior national representative for South Africa and captain of Natal, a South African provincial team.
The day before the final of the U19 South African National Championships in 1998, he was involved in a serious car accident in Johannesburg. It left Nick with paraplegia at the age of 18.
Rather than rest on his laurels, Nick has carved out a successful career, both on the basketball court and in the business world. Having studied in Cape Town and abroad in Texas, he attained an honours degree in Business Science. Nick moved to Australia in 2005, basing himself in the Illawarra region while playing for the West Sydney Razorbacks.
Nick warms up for matches by shooting form shots from close range, before practising his free throws. It should come as no surprise then that he has the honour of owning the record for most free throws in a minute at Saxby Stadium in Taree, landing an impressive 19 shots in 60 seconds in 2009.
He got his first start for the Australian national team at the 2009 World Roller Challenge, before being named MVP at the 2010 Frank Ponta Trophy. One day, Nick wants to be able to tell his kids about the time he won a Paralympic gold medal for Australia.
Australia has won six medals in wheelchair basketball at the Paralympic Games – two gold, three silver and one bronze – since it was introduced to the Games in Rome 1960. Of the six medals, the Rollers have won two gold and a silver, while the Gliders have won two silvers and a bronze.
Australian Paralympic Committee CEO and 2012 Chef de Mission Jason Hellwig believes the medal tally will continue to grow in London.
“Australia has a proud history in wheelchair basketball, having competed in the sport since the first Paralympic Games in 1960. More recently, it is a sport that has brought Australia a lot of success and we are hopeful that these two teams can enhance that record further in London,” Mr Hellwig said.
“It is wonderful for every Roller and Glider heading to the 2012 Games to know that they are part of a sport with such a rich Paralympic history of which Australia plays a significant role.”
Currently ranked number one in the world after winning the Paralympic gold medal in Beijing 2008 and the 2010 World Championships, the Rollers are hoping to retain their Paralympic title with back-to-back gold medals.
Western Australia’s Brad Ness will again captain the side during what will be his fourth consecutive Paralympics, while Bill Latham (QLD) and Jannik Blair (VIC) will feature at their first Games. It will be a tough assignment for the Rollers who will face the USA, South Africa, Turkey, Spain and Italy in the pool.
“We’re ready. The last four years we’ve been preparing ourselves for this moment and when you look at the work we’ve done – every player has had game time, gym time, on-court time – we’re just ready to get in there and do battle,” Australian Rollers Head Coach, Ben Ettridge said.
“We’ve drawn the USA and they’ll be a tough one, as will Italy and Turkey who have proven their performance on the world stage recently. They could give us a good shake while we believe Spain could cause a few upsets and could be quite dangerous.”
The Gliders are looking for their first ever Paralympic gold medal, having won two silvers and a bronze from the last three Games.
The team won bronze in Beijing after losing to eventual gold medallists, the USA in the semi-final and finished fourth at the 2010 World Championships, before stepping up their ball play to take the crown at the 2011 Asia Oceania Championships and securing their place in London.
With 15 Paralympic Games between them, captain Bridie Kean (QLD) will join seasoned campaigners Amanda Carter (VIC), Sarah Stewart (NSW), Tina McKenzie (NSW), Kylie Gauci (NSW), Katie Hill (NSW), Cobi Crispin (QLD), Clare Nott (WA) and Shelley Chaplin (VIC) as well as Western Australian debutantes Amber Merritt and Sarah Vinci and Victorian Leanne del Toso.
Kean, who made her Paralympic debut in Beijing, will captain her first Paralympic side in London when the Gliders take on Brazil, Great Britain, Canada and the Netherlands in the pool round.
“Canada beat us at the World Championships in the bronze medal game and although we’ve since gotten back on top of them, they will be a tough side to beat, as will the Netherlands, who historically have beaten us by just a few points on a few occasions,” Australian Gliders Head Coach, John Triscari said.
“We’ve worked really hard to improve the team’s shooting percentage, we’ve had strength and conditioning coaches working with the girls to up their fitness and we’ve increased the volume of shooting during training. Hopefully all the hard work the girls are putting in now, will pay off in London.”
The London 2012 Paralympic Games will take place from August 29 – September 9 with the wheelchair basketball medal finals held September 7 (women) and September 8 (men).