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Illinois' Oberst setting example on, off the court

02/08/2019, 5:00pm CST
By Ryan Wilson

First installment of our Toyota Start Your Impossible features

The 2019 U25 team member wants to set an example for female wheelchair basketball players as she chases her dreams.

This article in the first installment of our Toyota "Start Your Impossible" series, highlighting the stories of athletes striving towards their goal of representing Team USA on the biggest stage -- the Paralympic Games.

Emily Oberst continues to find her way in wheelchair basketball — whether that’s outplaying one of her male counterparts or making shots for Team USA.

“Wheelchair basketball has given me an opportunity to compete at a high level and showcase that women can compete just as high as men,” Oberst said. 

Obsert was named to the 2019 U.S. Women’s U25 World Championships team that will compete this year in Thailand. She also advanced past the first round of cuts for the U.S. Women's National Team, inching her way closer to reaching her Paralympic dream.

Oberst knows her presence on the court is setting an example for others off it.

“Competing at a high level takes away the social stigma that women are inadequate of competition and sport,” she said.

Stephanie Wheeler, Oberst’s coach at the University of Illinois and coach of the 2016 gold-medal winning U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team in Rio, is aware of the significance of female role models in wheelchair basketball.

Wheeler said female wheelchair basketball players face two layers of stigmas.

“(They hear), ‘Oh, you can’t play a sport. You use a wheelchair, there’s no way you’re going to be able to do that,’” Wheeler said. “They hear that story all the time about whose body is fit to be an athlete — both from a disability point of view and a gender point of view."

She added: “Sometimes you hear a story that you don’t bring value and that you don’t belong.”

Wheeler heard that story first-hand growing up, and she became aware of such experiences when she took classes at Illinois.

“I want to help change that story one athlete at a time,” she said.

Oberst did not mention whether she has faced the stigma of being female, but she was initially hesitant to compete in a wheelchair. The University of Illinois athlete was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in the eighth grade. Ewing’s Sarcoma is a rare form of bone cancer, and it led to invasive surgery and nine months of chemotherapy.

She is able to walk, but her dreams of one day becoming a professional able-bodied basketball player were dashed.

“Growing up, sports were my entire life,” she said. “I think I spent almost every weekend at some sort of competition — whether it was basketball, softball, golf or track. When I was diagnosed with cancer and was told I may never play sports again, I kind of felt like part of my identity was kind of taken away from me.”

Bob Anger, then the head coach of the Milwaukee Heat wheelchair basketball team, reached out to Oberst. Anger convinced Oberst and her parents to attend a practice.

Oberst was skeptical at first.

“Then I saw it (wheelchair basketball) with my own eyes and fell in love with it at that moment,” she said.

Oberst, now a junior in college, says her passion for wheelchair basketball only increases as she sees higher levels of play. The bar she has for herself, both as an athlete and role model,  will continue to rise.

“I will never be satisfied with where I am,” she said. “I always want to do more and get better each day. I will be happy at the end of my career, but until then, I will be working very hard.”

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