Going for the Gold: A Gaeng Family Affair

By Annemarie Blanco | July 10, 2015, 5:39 p.m. (ET)

Gail Gaeng, pictured above in 14, is one of twelve women that will head to Toronto in August for the 2015 Parapan American games. 

Twice a week, Going for the Gold will highlight a member of Team USA’s Parapan American roster leading up to the games beginning on August 7. Features will take a deeper look at a member of each of the 14 Paralympic sports that the U.S. will compete in during the 2015 Parapan American Games, held in Toronto. The fifth installment spotlights wheelchair basketball athlete Gail Gaeng (Frederick, Maryland).

Nestled in the midst of the Olympic Training Center’s dining hall lunch rush, wheelchair basketball athlete Gail Gaeng gushed about family, struggles with making the team and excitement for what’s in store in her upcoming months.

The youngest of six, Gaeng grew up surrounded by a family of athletes. A father who coached basketball, a mother who played collegiate soccer and collection of ambitious athletic siblings, sports were a force of bonding for the Gaeng family.

“Each and every one of my family members, including my parents, were NCAA athletes,” Gaeng said. “Thankfully, everyone in family is supportive of each other. It was a competitive atmosphere but it was a good sort of competitive. We pushed each other to become better instead of putting pressure on one another. I had five great role models to look up to.”

As she stood alongside her father and watched her brothers’ love of basketball grow, Gaeng knew at a young age that her path belonged in team sports. After countless years in youth basketball she continued the family tradition into college, joining the University of Illinois-Champaign’s wheelchair basketball team where she’s set to play for her last year come fall.

Being an NCAA athlete has been my proudest moment,” Gaeng explained with a smile. “There is some pressure being the youngest of six, but to be able to make my parents and family proud is huge.”

While Gaeng has experienced years of success on the collegiate level, her spot on the national team didn’t come quite so easily. But, after six years of heart wrenching close encounters her dream finally came true last year.

“The most challenging thing I’ve dealt with was trying out for the team five times before I made it,” said Gaeng. “In those moments it was really hard to see the good in it, but it made me work harder and also realize how special of an opportunity this is. You’re never handed anything, it proved to me that resiliency is key and you just need to keep working.”

With her family, team and persistence by her side, the Maryland native made the national team in 2014 and she credits much of it to her time in intercollegiate sports.

“I think those two years in college really helped me solidify my game and understand my role of what I bring to the table and what I can do to help my team out. The experience in college playing against great players carries over and I’m able to kind of take it easy and be under control.”

As she rumbled through her plate of salmon and mixed rice and spoke about her team’s cohesiveness, her teammates listened intently with pride behind her. The entire Team USA roster has spent the last week training vigorously in preparation of the upcoming Parapan American games next month in Toronto.

We’re clicking really well,” explained Gaeng. “We have a really good couple of lineups that we’re running and the competitive level in each training session is awesome. I’m extremely happy with where we are. We of course have room to grow, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

In just a few moments watching Gaeng among teammates, it’s apparent that her fever for excellence and unwillingness to give up has made her a valuable member of the team.

An avid music lover, the wheelchair basketball star has a few tricks to prepare for competition. Depending on the opponent, she spends time listening to the country’s top artist as a pre-game ritual to accompany a heavy session of stretching.

“This is really odd for wheelchair basketball but I have to stretch my legs, I don’t use my legs at all when I play but before every game I have to stretch,” Gaeng chuckled. “I’m on the ground stretching and I always get made fun of for it but it’s just something in my mind that helps me calm down and loosen my back up a little bit.”

When she’s not competing, training or finishing her double management and marketing degree, the eager 23-year-old is working hard to make wheelchair basketball an official NCAA sport rather than just varsity.

“We’re doing really well. We just got included into the ECAC Conference, the same channel that women’s hockey took to became an NCAA sport. I’m on the committee and I’m excited for the future of wheelchair basketball.”

For now, Gaeng will have a week’s vacation before she heads back to Illinois to start her preseason camp, her last year of school and spend the next six months preparing herself for the Paralympic trials in January.

Parapan American wheelchair basketball competitions will be held at the Ryerson Athletic Center beginning on Saturday, August 8 and concluding on Saturday, August 15. The U.S. women’s roster features many Paralympians including Darlene Hunter, Mackenzie Soldan, Desiree Miller and Jenn Poist. For more information on the upcoming Parapan American Games visit Toronto2015.org.