Jorge Sanchez at training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Growing up playing baseball, Jorge Sanchez never pictured himself becoming a member of the U.S. Men’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team.
Sanchez was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in his left femur at the age of 8. He underwent countless surgeries, in addition to chemotherapy, but eventually opted to have his left leg amputated, ending his baseball career.
“I was about 9 years old when I was done with my chemotherapy,” said Sanchez. “I didn’t really want to leave the house because I was intimidated or worried about people staring at me.”
Sanchez said he didn’t know adaptive sports existed until a man at his local Costco approached him about wheelchair basketball.
“This guy came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, have you ever tried wheelchair basketball?’” recalled Sanchez. “I started talking to him and he invited me to come out and try it with him that Saturday. I decided to give it a chance and I loved it.”
Sanchez fell in love with the sport and hasn’t looked back since. He says wheelchair basketball has helped shape him into the person he is today.
“I decided to continue because it got me out of my shell,” he said. “I was very shy, but the guys that got me into basketball were the ones that pushed me and told me, ‘You can be really good at this.’”
Sanchez received a full scholarship to University of Texas at Arlington, where he played wheelchair basketball for the Movin’ Mavs. Now 26, he plays professionally in Spain and is a second-year member of the U.S. men’s national team. However, Sanchez says the success wasn’t a given.
“This has been my goal since I first started, but I didn’t really think I would get there. I was overweight and never really took basketball too seriously, until my third year of college. My coach had a serious talk with me, and I thank him a lot for making me realize my potential.”
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He calls being on the national team a blessing, and it is one that has taught him a lot.
“Being on the team with my heroes like Matt Scott and Steve Serio, and all the guys I look up to, is an honor,” said Sanchez. “[Serio] is wonderful and in my opinion the best player in the world right now. Just being able to practice with him the past month and a half has been wonderful because he’s helped me tremendously. Any pointers he gives me I gladly take them because I know he’s looking out for my best interest and the team’s.”
The men’s team spent a few weeks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, preparing for the 2018 Wheelchair Basketball World Championships, which began Thursday in Hamburg, Germany, and continue through Aug. 26.
“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to live on campus,” said Sanchez. “The OTC is wonderful and we really appreciate everything that they’ve done for us. The resources that we’ve been given are awesome. We can train basically anytime we want."
Back home in California, Sanchez trains on his own.
“Sometimes you get lazy and you don’t have that motivation, but being around these guys here it’s impossible to be lazy,” he explained. “They push me to the max and they expect greatness out of me and that’s what I want to give them.”
The past few months the team has been training vigorously to get their bodies ready for their lengthy competition. With intense two-a-day practices, plus lifting and watching film, the coaches have worked to prepare the team physically and mentally.
Head coach Ron Lykins knows what it takes to win. Lykins has coached three teams to Paralympic gold (2004 women, 2008 women, 2016 men).
“I’ve never had a coach like Ron,” said Sanchez. “He’s awesome. He’s very tough on us because he expects greatness, which is what we expect as well. It’s good to have somebody that expects you to compete at a high level.”
Sanchez says that with all the hard work and preparation that has gone into training the past few months, he has no doubt that Team USA can bring home gold.
“Honestly, I don’t see any challenges for us outside of the court,” said Sanchez. “We feel really good going into world championships. We like our chances and are super pumped.”
The team, which includes 10 Paralympic gold medalists from Rio – plus Sanchez and John Boie, begins play Saturday morning against Poland.
Team USA has medaled at every past world championships but is eager to bring home gold for the first time in 16 years.
“I’ve never been a part of a team that is this tight and close-knit,” Sanchez said. “I love everybody on the team.”
He says winning gold for his country would be incredible, but that’s not why he plays. He plays because he loves the game and his teammates.
“I would do anything to win that gold medal and it’s not only for the red, white and blue, but for the guys on the court with me,” Sanchez said. “We want to achieve something we haven’t achieved in a very long time and I want to win this for those guys; the people I look up to.”