During a championship wheelchair basketball game, the Chicago Skyhawks youth adaptive team was beating the competition by a massive lead. Soon, the other team advanced and many of the Skyhawks' players developed jitters and started playing sloppily. But not Ixhelt Gonzalez, the only girl on the team.
She stayed cool, wheeled down the court and banked a perfect shot. Her confidence helped the rest of the team relax, allowing them to maintain the lead and win the 2016 Prep Division National Championship.
“She’s one of those spectacular 13-year-olds who brings those intangibles on the court,” Mark Schultz, of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Adaptive Sports Program in Chicago, told TODAY. “She has the skills both physically and mentally.”
Those skills are garnering her a lot of attention. When the coach of the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team, Trooper Johnson, saw Ixhelt play in November at a camp, he invited her to try out for the national team. Ixhelt was the youngest person vying for a spot on the 17-player roster.
“It was kind of a big deal for me,” Ixhelt told TODAY. “This really hasn’t happened for teenage girls.”
She’s right. It’s been 20 years since someone this young has been asked to try out for the national paralympic team, said Schultz.
“She is very unique in the fact that she is a 13-year-old who is getting the opportunity to try out for a paralympic team,” he said.
Ixhelt has femoral anteversion, a painful condition where her thigh bones twist inward. While she walks without a limp, the condition makes playing sports almost impossible. But wheelchair basketball allows her to enjoy sports like any other teenager. She’s been playing since she was 7. When her mom first suggested it, Ixhelt balked.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t have a disability,’ and she said ‘Yes, you do,’” Ixhelt explained. “I said I would try out. I went to the first practice and I liked the sport.”
That like turned into love, which translated into some true skill and talent. Ixhelt plays at Rainbow Beach Park in South Chicago, in an adaptive sports program run by Chicago Park District and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. While the program first allowed her to feel included, it now helps her develop her talent to play at an Olympic level.
“Her paralympic dreams transitioned into a paralympic goal,” Schultz said. “A lot of athletes have the dream to wear the red, white, and blue … She has the chance to do it.”
Her mom, Tomasa Gonzalez, encouraged Ixhelt to play wheelchair basketball because she saw how much Ixhelt’s older brother, Guillermo, who has cerebral palsy, benefited from it. Almost immediately, Gonzalez saw her daughter grow.
“At the beginning, she didn’t want to touch the ball or know how to use a wheelchair,” Gonzalez said. “She gained confidence and it builds her self-esteem a lot and helps her not see herself as different from others.”
Ixhelt approached the trials realistically; she understood she might not make the team on her first try.
But she had little reason to worry. Ixhelt earned a spot on the 17-player team, which is preparing for the IWBF World Championship taking place in Hamburg, Germany in August. Eventually, coaches will cut five players for a 12 person team, but Ixhelt, the youngest player on the roster, feels grateful for any chance.
“It is really exciting to get to play with the national team,” Ixhelt said. “I will just keep on trying and work on things to do better.”
Gonzalez is thrilled for her daughter.
"I am so excited," she said.
Gonzalez feels lucky her daughter has a chance to compete at the national level thanks to adaptive sports programs.
“My kids are no different than others. I want them to have the same opportunities,” she said. “The very, very first time I went to the away tournament, I saw these kids in wheelchairs playing this sport … My first feeling was, ‘This is where I belong. This is where my kids belong.’”