Natalie Schneider celebrating alongside fellow USA Women's Wheelchair Basketball teammates following their gold-medal win at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
With the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 kicking off this week, the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team is prepared for its most important competition of the year.
For women’s wheelchair basketball teams, finishing as one of the top two countries in Peru means earning a spot at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
According to U.S. captain and two-time Paralympic gold medalist Natalie Schneider, the team is going for nothing less than gold.
“It’s really important that we take care of business in Lima and play our game and do the best we can because we fully intend to be in Tokyo,” Schneider said.
Schneider, 36, has experienced every high and low the sport has to offer. The three-time Paralympian won gold for Team USA at both the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 and Paralympic Games Rio 2016; however, she missed the podium at the London 2012 Games, finishing fourth.
“[Winning gold in Beijing] was just the highlight of the whole trip… getting to be on the court when the buzzer went off and we were the official gold medalists was just a huge moment and it was so emotional,” Schneider said.
For the first time, Schneider will be a captain for the squad at the Parapan American Games.
“I’m really looking for myself to make sure that I’m doing my best in that [captain] role on the team – being a vocal leader, setting a good example as a leader and just really making sure that the team keeps functioning as one unit,” Schneider said.
For teammate and Rio 2016 gold medalist Abby Dunkin, the pressure is on to qualify for the U.S. for the Tokyo Games.
“For a tournament like this, you can’t take [making the top-two] for granted,” Dunkin said. “[Team USA’s] spot for Tokyo isn’t qualified yet, so that’s something we really need to work up to. We need to play like we’re down by 10.”
Dunkin, 23, was fortunate to be an integral part of the squad that won gold at the last Parapan American Games in Toronto in 2015.
While winning a gold medal in Toronto was an exciting moment for Dunkin, winning gold in Rio meant something more.
“Winning gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games [was different],” Dunkin said. “Seeing our flag go a little higher than everyone else’s was a really neat feeling.”
Both Schneider and Dunkin pointed out that balancing the priorities in their personal lives with their sport is more difficult than it seems.
Schneider, who’s a stay-at-home mom, has three daughters – Rowan, Hannah and Tori – who take up most of her time off the court.
At times, Schneider would find herself taking a break from playing – or leaving the sport altogether – when expecting the birth of her daughters. While she’s retired twice in the last few years, it seems like nothing can keep Schneider from getting back on the court.
“It’s sort of a switch on, switch off for me, thinking about the kids and then coming back to basketball,” Schneider said. “It’s sort of like I live in two separate worlds and have two separate personalities almost.
Sometimes her kids join her at practice so they can keep up with what their mom is doing as a Team USA athlete.
The Paralympian mentioned, however, that she still has time to focus on both her family and her sport, especially when she visits the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“With the kids, they just take up so much of your attention that you’re just like on mom mode all the time, and then I come here [to the OPTC] and then I get to be Natalie the basketball player while I’m here and that’s great.”
Dunkin, who last year graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington, noted that balancing life on and off the court can be more of a mental issue than anything else.
“[Balancing personal life and wheelchair basketball] is a lot,” Dunkin said. “I think basketball is about 99-percent mental and 1-percent physical.”
She is also aware that taking care of her health and managing her diet are key to being ready for competition.
“I think for me as an athlete, it starts at the dinner plate, making sure I eat right and all that kind of stuff, so it carries on the court,” Dunkin said. “So, I’m also holding myself accountable as well as my teammates.”
Now a veteran on the team, Dunkin reminds her fellow players to also enjoy the experiences.
“My advice would be to just enjoy the journey, sink it all in, enjoy the training, even though it’s going to be hard and we’re not going to like it,” Dunkin said. “Especially when we get there, with 12,000 people in the stands or more, have it sink in.”