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Team SA ‘athletes to the core’

The dozen men on the Sasol South Africa wheelchair basketball squad have been called everything from inspirational to dynamic, but this team just want to be called athletes.

ÔÇ£Wheelchair basketball is a very physical and aggressive sport and players on my squad are completely committed,ÔÇØ says national coach, Viv Sierra.┬á ÔÇ£These guys have overcome the greatest odds. They are not a feel-good story; they are athletes to the core.

ÔÇ£People who say disabled sport is not real sport, or who think wheelchair basketball players cannot catch a ball, are usually people who have not watched it. Once they have, they are convinced of its merits.

ÔÇ£When people look at Oscar Pistorius, they don’t seem him as someone who is disabled; they see him as an incredible athlete. It’s the same for this team.ÔÇØ

Watching these guys in action at the Mandeville Indoor Stadium in Johannesburg during the six-nation World Cup Africa Qualifiers, you are pulled on to a rollercoaster of emotion and pretty soon this sport becomes compulsive viewing.

The screams of rubber on wood, the hollering, the crashes and recoveries and speed and agility ÔÇô they defy gravity, soaring to unimaginable lows, angles and heights. They graft and grind with relentless energy; they push the boundaries every minute they are on court.

It’s like they say: no-one pushes them around.

Standing in the way of their bid for the single spot on offer to the 2010 IBWF World Championships in Birmingham are five teams with pretty much the same agenda.

So far, the qualifiers have not been without drama.

South Africa suffered an surprising 71-68 defeat to Algeria in the opening round, but the home side rebounded with a 88-29 drumming over Angola. On paper, the next three rounds against Kenya, Zimbabwe and Morocco should go the way of the home side, leaving them just a match away from glory.

The team, with impairments ranging from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy and amputations, say even though they face challenges every day, the key is to keep a positive attitude.

“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean time stops or your life ends there,ÔÇØ says Siphamandla Gumbi, or ‘Zulu Boytjie’ as he is affectionately known within the ranks of the team.

ÔÇ£We stand apart from normal people, not because of our impairments, but because of our unbending spirit. There are many things you can do and accomplish. You just have to push yourself and want to strive to continue your life.ÔÇØ

Richard Nortje, top scorer to date for South Africa at the international qualifier, adds: ÔÇ£What surprises people who have never seen disabled sport before is how strong and capable athletes are, how it doesn’t matter whether you are missing a limb, your eyesight, or your ability to walk, you can be an amazing athlete.

ÔÇ£Sport is sport, whether it is played from a wheelchair, with a prosthetic or some other assistive device. Disabled athletes have the same drive, the same will to succeed and to win, that athletes without disabilities have,” he said.