21 October 2013
Wheelchair Basketball Legend calls it a day – Tribute to Lisa Edmonds
Sunday 8th September, 2013 marked an important day in Women's Wheelchair Basketball history – not only did the Perth Be Active Western Stars make history and win their first Grand Final since their inception into the WNWBL in 2006 in what has been hailed by many as the greatest WNWBL final since its creation in 2000, but a legend of the game decided it was time to retire after 24 years at the top level.
In every sport there are those who excel and set the benchmark for the future generations of players. Wheelchair Basketball is no different. There are good players, great players and then there is Lisa Edmonds. It is said that intangibles are hard to value, but sport like in life values athletes who exemplify excellence and possess leadership attributes that rest beyond the box score. After playing over 100 internationals for the Gliders over the course of 13 years and overcoming adversity like many great athletes, Lisa has become one of the most respected figures in Wheelchair Basketball through hard work and dedication. Her legacy extends far beyond the basketball court to the point where she is a staple and integral part of the national basketball community.
Lisa is the epitome of sporting excellence; fierce on the court, respectful and humble off it; a true pioneer who has earnt her place in the annals of Wheelchair Basketball history in Australia.
Lisa was introduced to Wheelchair Basketball by Craig Jarvis in 1988 at the age of 20. Craig has a long and distinguished involvement in wheelchair sports in NSW through his role as Sport and Recreation Officer at the Prince of Wales Spinal Cord Injuries Unit and has introduced many people to the sport and still does today. She recalls vividly the moment she felt passionate about the sport, "I left the hospital, bought a basketball and pushed up and down the street trying to bounce the ball. I absolutely loved the challenge and being active."
From there Lisa's passion only grew stronger and it wasn't long before she became active in the sport. "I first started playing/training at the home of wheelchair basketball at the 'Kevin Betts Stadium' in Mt Druitt. I remember being gobsmacked by the colourful lightweight speedy chairs that were flying up and down the court, not to mention the chair and ball skills of these amazing athletes. Needless to say I wanted to be like that!"
As with many sports, women did not have the platform they do today but that did not deter Lisa from pursuing her passion, and she looks back fondly on the experience. "In the early days (late 80's-early 90's) the sport was dominated by men, there were very few opportunities for women to get involved. However, the men were extremely supportive and encouraging and certainly toughened us up along the way – I know that all female players back in the 80-90's certainly appreciated their support. Gerry Hewson "Mr. Basketball" (former Gliders coach) in particular who played a huge part in my early skill and knowledge development and whos passion, time and energy still generates many great athletes today."
Photo 1: World Championships 1990 Photo 2: Greetings from Barcelona 1992 Photo 3: Paralympics Atlanta 1996
It wasn't long before Lisa's exceptional talent was noticed and her call up to the National team - the Gliders was the beginning of her transformation as a leader and not just a player. She credits Sue Hobbs – a legendary Australian Paralympic athlete and wheelchair basketball player in her own right for the work she put in establishing the first ever female squad.
"In 1988, Sue Hobbs decided to visit each State to meet all (if any) girls that were playing or interested in playing wheelchair basketball. Sue was very passionate about sport particularly wheelchair basketball and also a great athlete. She was playing in the Adelaide men's national league team but her dream was to create the first ever National women's team. In the following summer of 1989 a group of girls from around Australia were invited to a training/selection camp for the first ever National women's team. There were 12 girls at the camp and 11 were chosen, a dream come true for Sue Hobbs and the birth of a sporting evolution for women's basketball."
The first women's coach was Ian Wardrop, a South Australian who took the team to Kobe, Japan later that year for the FESPIC Games - Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled, which was the biggest multi-sports games in the Asia and South Pacific region at the time. The Gliders played the Japanese Women's team and although new and a young squad definitely learnt a lot from the experience in preparing the players for future international events.
From 1990 Peter Corr became the coach, and a decade of excellence was to follow. The first major tournament was the World Championships in 1990 in France and although the team did not medal it was the first time the event was made available for women. Lisa would go on to compete in four World Championships - 1990 (Saint-Étienne, France), 1994 (Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain), 1998 (Sydney, Australia) and 2002 (Kitakyushu, Japan) and won the bronze in three ("94", "98" and "02") – still Australia's best result. Although not considered quite as prestigious as the Paralympics the event is still hotly contested. "Just like the Paralympics, the best teams in the world compete against each other, so as far as the standard goes it's exactly the same. The obvious difference being is that the Paralympics are played on a much larger stage with so many bells and whistles. Winning 3 Bronze medals at Worlds doesn't feel quite as prestigious as Silver at the Paralympics, but I'm still very proud of all those achievements."
That opportunity arrived in 1992 at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona. The team arrived full of confidence and ready to enjoy the experience and push for a medal. The Gliders did not medal but Lisa played in all 5 games and became a part of history as the first women's team to compete at the Paralympics, something she remembers vividly. "Barcelona was amazing and certainly set the standard for future Paralympic Games, the village was situated right on the beautiful Mediterranean coast. There was everything you could wish for, maybe just a few too many distractions, and the excitement was very hard to contain. Despite that, the Aussie women certainly got themselves noticed after knocking out the very well established Germans and playing off for Bronze. We didn't win, but a fantastic experience with full stadiums cheering at our first Paralympics."
The 1996 Summer Paralympics were held in the United States city of Atlanta and were heavily criticised for the lack or organisation given compared to the Olympics something Lisa with many athletes still recall, "Atlanta was a huge disappointment in terms of the village, facilities and organisation or lack thereof, but the basketball was still amazing." Regardless, the Gliders were ranked third in the world and one of the favourites to medal and they showed why beating the USA for the first time in the group stages. Moving onto the semi-finals the Gliders fought valiantly before being defeated by the eventual Gold Medallists Canada. In their second Paralympics the Gliders faced off against the USA for the Bronze medal but this time the roles were reversed losing 30 – 41.
The break through finally came on home soil at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics. Considered by many the greatest Paralympics ever due to the recognition athletes received by the media and public, it still holds a special place in the hearts of everyone who competed. Spurred on by the home crowd, the Gliders won the Silver medal and cemented their place into the history books - a moment never to be forgotten. "Sydney was definitely the best games for me; it's really a definite highlight in my life. Not too many people can say they have competed at the Paralympics on home ground. The crowds were amazing; to compete for Gold in front of a full stadium of thousands of Aussies and my family cheering was a moment I will never forget. We won a Silver medal and at the time we as a team felt very disappointed, but looking back it was a huge achievement and one I am very proud of. Sydney just got it right and to be involved in an event that will be part of history was just surreal."
Lisa continued to play with the Gliders until 2002 and her years of leadership and excellence were recognised when she was given the Captaincy of the team at the World Championships in Japan that year. She decided to step away from the national team afterwards giving the Gliders a chance to rejuvenate and bring in the next generation of players, not always an easy task for great athletes who have been playing at the elite level for so long. She can take solace in the fact that many players coming through were inspired by watching her play for so many years and is something she is grateful for, "I know along the way there's been many players I have encouraged, supported and mentored in their early days and to see them develop into great players is such a thrill."
The 2012 Paralympics in London saw the Gliders claim another Silver medal, matching the heroics of Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, and although not a part of the squad the emotions don't change and neither does the quest for Gold. "I think the Gliders played very well in London and got through some very tight games to give themselves a shot at Gold. This is the third time the Gliders have been in a Paralympic final which is a testament to not just the quality and dedication of players, but everything that goes on behind the scenes such as staff, programs and various organisations that are all involved in the success of the Gliders. I know the Gliders will win Gold and it will be such an incredible, emotional moment for me when that happens."
The year 2000 marked another milestone moment for Women's Wheelchair Basketball – a national league where the country's elite were able to compete against each other as opposed to playing with the men. "A Women's league was something that needed to happen sooner rather than later, although the mixed teams had strengthened the ability of female players enormously, women were playing a different role in their men's team than that of their women's team. As a result the need for women to compete against women became a priority. So what better time to put the league into place than the lead up to the 2000 Paralympics? The league did not only provide opportunities for development but became the platform for the Gliders squad selection - coaches are able to watch players in full flight in the same role they would be playing for the Gliders."
Photo 1: Gold Cup – Sydney 1998 Photo 2: Gold Cup – Japan 2002 Photo 3: Gold Cup – Japan 2002
Looking back today, Lisa acknowledges the quality of play has become stronger, but the ground work was laid and something she looks back on fondly and its future. "Obviously the standard was not as good as it is now, but it was a start and it opened up opportunities for many women to compete in a women's competition. We relied on support from able bodied players to make up teams; who very soon against a lot of criticism became key players in the league. The league wouldn't have eventuated without their support. I feel very privileged to be part of that history and hope to still be part of its future in some way."
In an era where sports athletes are known for changing teams regularly Lisa showed her loyalty playing with the North Sydney Bears (now Stacks Goudkamp Bears) since its inception in 2000. Along the way she won the league championship in 2001 and was named in the All Star five for four consecutive years 2000 – 2003. It's easy to see the accolades but like many has come at times with great sacrifice and personal hardships. "There are many personal sacrifices you make to be a great athlete – I recall many important family celebrations that I could not attend due to training or competition, and of course the pressure that it puts on your relationship because you need to be very selfish and put the team above everything else. My diet had to be very strict so avoiding lots of various foods was challenging but I'm also very thankful for that because it put me into good eating habits that still remain today."
Made easier was the continued support she has received from her family, a cornerstone for many an athlete pursuing their goals and dreams. "My family were always beside me in spirit and I had their support even though they were far away in the UK. Despite that I always had my parents and family representation at every major tournament around the world which I so much appreciated and it would not have been the same without them there or meant half as much as it did."
After a 24 year career in a physically challenging and demanding sport, it's no surprise that Lisa views her biggest accomplishment as "lasting so bloody long", and when asked about advice to the next generation her passion and charisma shines through once more, "If you start playing wheelchair basketball and fall in love with it and want to be the best you can be, you have to live it, breathe it, dream it and make the basketball something you can't be without, and in some cases the wheelchair!"
After a career full of history making moments, awards and accolades it would be cognisant to attribute Lisa's legacy to being a pioneer and laying a platform for others to achieve nationally and internationally, but ever humble she sees the love of the game first and foremost. "I hope that I am remembered for giving women's basketball a helping hand in its future development, and for being a tough, passionate but fair player and I hope my long career will encourage others to keep playing for as long as they are enjoying it. The greatest accolades I take with me are the lifelong friendships that became my family and I thank everyone that has supported me along the way and helped shape me as a player and my career."
As for regrets, Lisa has none and very pleased she chose Wheelchair basketball to pursue. As someone who has sport in her blood she will continue to stay active and enjoy life after sport. "The sacrifices were well worth the satisfaction I've had from my career and I would do it all again if I could go back in time, but for now the world is my oyster to discover what other adventures are out there waiting."
Photo 1: Liesl Tesch makes a special presentation to Lisa Photo 2: World Championships 1994 Photo 3: Finishing runners-up in the WNWBL 2013 Finals
Games Played for Australia
|Official International Competition||44||44|
|Other International Competition||60||60|
Australian Representative Details
|FESPIC – Kobe, Japan||1989||4|
|Worlds – St Etienne, France||1990||5|
|IWBF Paralympic Qualifier - Stoke, England||1992||5|
|Paralympics – Barcelona, Spain||1992||5|
|Worlds – Stoke, England||1994||5|
|Edmonton/Toronto - Canada||1996||8|
|Paralympics – Atlanta, USA||1996||5|
|Gold Cup – Sydney (Worlds)||1998||5|
|Osaka Cup, Japan||1999||6|
|SLAM Series Paralympic Test Event - Sydney||2000||5|
|Roosevelt Cup – Warm Springs, USA||2000||4|
|Paralympics – Sydney||2000||5|
|Roosevelt Cup – Warm Springs, USA||2002||4|
|Gold Cup – Japan||2002||5|
Captain - 2002
Note: Career piece written by Luke Cevolani with quotes from Lisa Edmonds. Photos used with permission from Max Illingworth and courtesy of Lisa Edmonds.