Rookie a first-time wheelchair basketball hit

If the B.C. Wheelchair Basketball Society (BCWBS) had a rookie-of-the-year award then Amanda Yan would be a slam-dunk winner.

It was only eight months ago the 23-year-old from Burnaby began to take the sport seriously. This weekend, she will be a key member of the B.C. Breakers at the national championships, which are taking place at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

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"I'm the newest player on this team," explained Yan, following a scrimmage on Monday night at the Oval. "All of my teammates have four or five years experience, where I am constantly learning. We have been training very hard and (the coaches) will set aside special attention for me. They want me to totally understand everything and I always want to know what is going on.

"If I started three years ago, I would have had much more experience. I'm at least here now."

Back in 2009, Yan couldn't entertain the thought of playing in a high-level team sport and rightly so. A year earlier, she was seriously injured in a snowboarding accident at Whistler.

The edge of her board got caught on a cat track. Yan not only crashed but couldn't stop her momentum. She fell off a cliff and landed an estimated 30 metres below. She temporarily lost consciousness but does recall not being able to move her legs.

Yan was airlifted to hospital where she was diagnosed with three fractured vertebrae, two dislocated vertebrae and an assortment of other injuries, including a broken right femur. She was told her chances of walking again were slim to none.

Months of recovery followed, mostly as an inpatient at the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. That's where she was first introduced to wheelchair basketball by the society's Joe Higgins during one of her gym classes.

Having been an active athlete through her teen years, including basketball, volleyball and track and field at Burnaby Central High School, Yan was a natural and Higgins saw her potential.

"He saw I was having fun and doing well at it," recalled Yan. "Then he started coming out in the evenings a few times and doing one-on-one sessions with me."

When Yan was discharged three months later, she attended a city league drop-in night but was bothered by a sore wrist that turned out was still fractured from the accident. When she was finally given a clean bill of health to resume playing, the struggles of adjusting to her new life were overwhelming.

"The rehab doesn't start until you get into the real world," said Yan. "You are stuck in a building where everyone is injured and some were even worse off than you. Everything there was wheelchair accessible, but that's just not the way it is everywhere."

It took nearly two years for Yan to move ahead with her life. Thanks to the support of her family and boyfriend she was ready to take on new challenges. She resumed her studies at Simon Fraser University and will soon have her bachelor degree in health sciences. She eventually will head across town to UBC to work towards becoming a chartered accountant.

Yan also pursued wheelchair sports last year and has wasted little time in establishing herself as an up-and-coming athlete.

Besides her progress in basketball, she was in Toronto last weekend, where she qualified for the shot put at the national track and field championships.

In wheelchair basketball, players are classified based on their disability - ranging from .5 to 4.5. For the nationals, the five players on the floor cannot exceed 17 classified points combined. The sport attracts many able-bodied athletes who are classified at 4.5. Yan is a 3, but has been moved down to a 2 for this event as a first-year player, making her a valuable contributor.

She is aware many opportunities are now ahead of her, including perhaps competing for Canada one day at the Paralympic Games. That could come sooner than later, especially if she keeps up her basketball training schedule that includes four practice sessions a week during the season.

"Basketball has become my second family," she smiled. "I feel very included with everything, and these guys push me hard.

"Even though I got hurt I am very glad I found the sport and realize it has opened up a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have had. I would love to be able to play for Canada one day."

The National Wheelchair Basketball Championships get underway today and will feature 25 games played on two courts. The event concludes on Sunday with the women and men's championship games at 12:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m., respectively.

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