For three weeks in September, John Gilbert’s high school chemistry and physics students will be left to man the Bunsen burners and subatomic particles without him.
The 31-year-old teacher will soon trade the classrooms of Salisbury, Missouri, for the wheelchair basketball courts of Rio de Janeiro when he makes his debut at the Paralympic Games, which take place from Sept. 7-18 and will be broadcast by NBC Sports and TeamUSA.org.
The United States qualified all eight of its team sports for the Paralympics for the first time since 2004, with the men’s wheelchair basketball team hoping to better its bronze-medal finish from the London 2012 Games. The squad earned its spot at these Paralympics by winning the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, where it outscored its competition by 36 points per game.
Gilbert is one of eight players on the 12-man roster who hails from the Midwest and also one of eight who helped the U.S. team claim silver at the 2014 IWBF World Championships.
The 1.0 classification player likes to think of himself as the wheelchair basketball equivalent of DeAndre Jordan, who recently helped Team USA to gold at the Olympic Games in Rio.
“He does his thing, and he does it pretty quietly,” Gilbert said. “I’m definitely a role player, too. I can hop outside and shoot, and I try to help get our big men as close to the basket as possible.”
Gilbert, who was paralyzed during spinal surgery as a child, has been playing wheelchair basketball since he was 9, but he was easily discouraged during his early years on the court.
The turning point came when his mom once shot a free throw from the 3-point line while sitting on the floor, saying, “If I can make it, so can you.”
And as the saying goes, momma knows best.
Gilbert would go on to captain the wheelchair basketball team at the University of Missouri; he originally enrolled as a pre-med student but eventually decided to go a different route and get a master’s degree in education.
He’s now entering his sixth year of teaching, and by this point has seen every frenzied gaffe possible in his labs.
Once, a student caught his lab partner’s hair on fire while trying to light a Bunsen burner.
Lesson learned. Gilbert now requires his students to wear hair ties.
Another time, while mixing oxygen and hydrogen gases to fly pipe heads across the room, one student did it so perfectly that the pipe head flew right out the classroom door and hit the school superintendent who was walking by.
Lesson learned. This time, literally.
“Those little moments” are what make teaching fun for Gilbert, who has the same mindset in the classroom as he does on the court.
“The main principles of my classroom carry over into basketball,” Gilbert said. “I tell my students, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’
“Just like in basketball, you’re going to take a chance; you’re going to go for a play and it’s not going to work. But it’s not the end of the world. In my class, I tell them to try their hardest without asking their lab partner, and if they mess up, it’s not the end of the world. That’s how you learn. You learn from your mistakes.”
The same lessons are applied in Gilbert’s household, where he and his wife Whitney are parents to foster children.
The toughest lesson of them all for Gilbert, though, has been learning how to balance basketball, school and family.
“It’s been a nice juggling act,” he said. “Sometimes you wish there were 30 hours in a day.”
But when Team USA opens its Rio 2016 Paralympic competition on Sept. 8 against host country Brazil, there will be just one ball for Gilbert to juggle.
With his family and students staying behind in the states, his mind will be completely on the court, where he’ll be reminded of his mom’s stirring slogan: “If I can make it, so can you.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.