Paul Schulte originally said no to wheelchair basketball. At 10-years-old, the sport enthusiast thought his dreams of playing sports was over after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car accident. It took him four years to give wheelchair basketball a try and even then he was skeptical.
“When I first heard about (wheelchair basketball), I wasn’t sure what to think,” Schulte said. “I didn’t know whether it’d be competitive or athletic, but then once I understood and learned more about the sport, what Paralympics really was, what college wheelchair basketball was, that’s when everything changed.”
At age 19, Schulte became the youngest player ever to claim a spot on Team USA’s men’s wheelchair basketball Gold Cup team. The Gold Cup – Wheelchair Basketball’s World Championship – saw Schulte average 15 points a game en route to Team USA’s gold medal. Four years later in the gold medal game of the 2002 Gold Cup, Schulte orchestrated an MVP performance with 32 points, clinching another USA gold medal. In between those two gold medals, USA stole bronze at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games on 21-year-old Schulte’s game-winning shot.
To this day, however, he’s still fighting for a Paralympic gold medal.
Since Schulte scored that bronze medal clinching shot at the 2000 Paralympic Games, the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team has struggled at the Paralympic Games. Despite claiming three gold medals, a silver medal, and a bronze medal in international competition since 2000, they finished a disappointing seventh at Athens in 2004 before losing to Great Britain in the bronze medal game in Beijing in 2008.
Still, Team USA isn’t just aiming to reach the podium at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“We’ve got 12 guys we know we can win a gold medal with,” Schulte said. “I think everyone looks at our team on paper and says 'Holy cow'. Any guy on our bench could arguably start for any other country.”
USA’s dominating performances have many thinking USA may win its first men’s wheelchair basketball gold medal in 24 years, a drought tracing back to the Seoul 1988 Paralympic Games. Between this year’s BT Paralympic World Cup and last year’s Parapan American Games, USA has outscored its opponents by an average of 33 points.
So, what’s the reason for the offensive outburst?
“The speed of the game has a real effect on scoring,” Schulte said. “Some hard work is really paying off. Lots of guys are scoring from lots of areas. I think the combination of team speed and getting to the basket has worked really well for us.”
With nothing but gold on their minds, they’re far from taking their foot off the pedal.
“What’s critical at this point is individual players fine-tuning their skills. As a co-captain, I think part of our role now is to just make sure our chemistry is there and our identity is healthy. We need to be having fun and feeling aggressive and bring some swagger. It’s important we go in confident in what we can bring offensively and more importantly defensively.”
After sitting out the 2004 season, Schulte was happy to return to the Paralympic stage in 2008. With this being his third Paralympics, Schulte has been nothing but impressed by the strides that have made.”
“I was in awe of the size at attendance of Sydney and got to see it repeated in Beijing. As an athlete, I think it’s been just terrific. I can’t think of any part of the Paralympics that hasn’t improved. As a U.S. athlete, I remember when I first made the USA team in 1998; I had to pay out of my own pocket for training. Now, U.S. Paralympics is just fantastic. We know when we go somewhere that we’re going to be taken care of. I’m very luck to experience the improvement.”
Now a 14-year veteran on the international level, Schulte looks to the younger players as living proof of how much Paralympics has changed.
“It’s an honor to help encourage the younger guys and watch them grow and mature. I’m having a blast with it. When I first made the team, not a single one of us were playing overseas. I think about half the team plays professionally overseas now.”
Knowing he’ll be playing an hour and a half from where his sport was created only adds excitement for Schulte. The modern Paralympic Games’ predecessor, the Stoke Mandeville Games was a sporting competition for spinal cord injured World War II veterans. Held in Stoke Mandeville, England in 1948, wheelchair basketball was one of the main events and has remained a Paralympic favorite since the first Paralympic Games in 1960.
Add the fact that Schulte’s wife and three-year-old son will be sitting in the stands cheering him on, and this will be Schulte’s most memorable Paralympic Games yet.
“The Paralympics is such a beautiful thing to be a part of. For it to be in London; the history of Paralympic sports started in England. There’s a lot of excitement. You know they’re going to do it right. Besides just playing, experiencing the environment with my family and my teammates is what I’m looking forward to the most.”
Twelve wheelchair basketball teams will be divided in two groups, from which the top four teams advance to the knockout stage. Competing in Group A with USA will be Turkey, Spain and Italy. USA opens play on August 30 against Turkey.