West Van's hardwood hero

Olympic dreams - Janet McLachlan takes a shot during the 2012 London Paralympic Games. - Wheelchair Basketball Canada
Olympic dreams - Janet McLachlan takes a shot during the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
— image credit: Wheelchair Basketball Canada

Her first time on the hardwood in a chair left her humbled. She was used to fluidly draining shots, jumping for rebounds and running up and down the court.

This was different.

West Van’s Janet McLachlan had been a basketball star in university, suiting up for the University of Victoria Vikes and winning national titles in 1998 and 2000.

But a gruesome knee injury she suffered in 2006 while playing rugby, another sport she excelled at, had left her unable to play the two sports she loved.

A teammate suggested wheelchair basketball to stay in shape while she recovered.

So, there she was inside a gymnasium in Edmonton in 2006 in wheelchair for the first time playing with Daniel Peers, considered a legend in the sport, and some other players. Peers, winner of an Olympic bronze and one-time world MVP, had lent McLachlan one of her chairs to try out the sport.

The chair was a little narrow and McLachlan struggled to shoot the ball. After the session she had blisters on her hands, her hips were sore and she hadn’t sunk many shots. But she liked the new sport — and the new challenge, which kept her coming back to court.

“I loved playing basketball again,” she recalls.  “You start by making lay-ups and then gradually over the next few months get to the point where you can actually make a foul shot.”

And the challenge remains to this day. “Every day I play there is a new challenge.

Something new and exciting to try and learn and try to perfect.”

At first, the biggest challenge was maneuvering the chair. “It’s very different during the learning process; eventually it gets to be second nature.”

The game is every bit as competitive as the other sports she’s played, especially when it comes to competing internationally.

“At the international level people are dedicating their lives to training for the team and the sport and it’s incredibly competitive,” says McLachlan, 35, who has degrees in science and education and most recently studied design at the University of Alabama, where she played wheelchair basketball and won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 with the Crimson Tide.

McLachlan became a member of Canada’s national team in 2008 and played in the Beijing Paralympics that year.

Wheelchair basketball teams are made up of players with different levels of ability. In Canada, and internationally, the classification system works like this: each player is assigned a number based on their functional ability. Players like McLachlan, who have few if any limitations are assigned 4.5 while players with less functional ability get lower scores. The five players on the court cannot exceed a cumulative point total of 14.

Last year at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, McLachlan put on a dazzling performance, finishing the tournament as the leading point-getter and rebounder as she guided Canada to a sixth-place finish. But she wasn’t done. Last year she also helped the BC Breakers win the Canadian Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Championship and picked up tourney MVP. And somehow she also found the time to suit up for her pro club team in Germany.

That impressive season earned her Wheelchair Basketball Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year honour earlier this month, but, always the team player, she prefers to dish the ball when discussing personal accolades, saying it’s a “reflection of the team, really. I feel very honoured to be given that award.”

And while she thrives on the on-court competition, it’s not the only thing she likes about the sport.

“Of all the sports that I’ve played I think it’s probably the most welcoming and it doesn’t matter what abilities you bring to the table, everybody’s always excited to have another player out,” she says, noting she’s made many strong, lifelong friendships through the sport.

“That environment is what keeps the athletes of all levels coming back.”

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