In almost all able bodied sports, the Indigenous athletes are the ones that excel with their speed, skill and flair. In Rugby, AFL and even Basketball, it's common to feel as if the Indigenous stars are in a league of their own. For wheelchair basketball, you shouldn't expect anything less.
In November, the 2018-2019 season of the U.S. College Wheelchair Basketball Division tipped off. Among the many stars from each of the colleges involved are three First Nations students. Two of the students are proud Aboriginal men from Australia.
Ryan Morich, a proud Noongar man from Perth, lost his leg below the knee to cancer when he was 12-years-old.
"I struggled initially with it, I guess, dealing with my prosthetic. I used to be so sporty before. But there's always something out there ... Different kinds of work, like, just keep moving forward," he told NITV News.
Ryan is studying for a General Business degree and is in his fifth year at the University of Alabama. He plays for the Alabama Men's Wheelchair Basketball team. He says he fell in love with wheelchair basketball when a parent of one of the Australian wheelchair basketball players visited him in hospital.
"They came and got me to try for the first time when I was 14 and, yeah, I've been playing it ever since."
Clarence "CJ" McCarthy-Grogan, a Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Kuku-Yalanji man from Darwin, NT is co-captain of the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) men's wheelchair basketball team, the Movin' Mavs. He's in his third year of studying for a major in Public Health.
Clarence told NITV a fibular limb deficiency meant his right leg didn't form properly. The deficiency also affected his left leg.
"It mostly means that I can't walk long distances, unless I am around my house or my apartment or going to a friends place. Other than that, if I'm going to school, to my classes, or going to the shopping centres on a regular basis, I'm always going to be needing my wheelchair to be a bit more independent."
Alongside Ryan and Clarence, is Noah Hotchkiss, a proud member of the Southern Ute Tribe from Durango, Colorado in North America. Noah is in his second year of studying for a degree in Recreation Sports and Tourism (RST) with an emphasis on Sports at the University of Illinois.
In 2009, Noah was involved in a head-on car collision and that resulted in a complete T6 Spinal Cord injury.
Noah told NITV, medical procedures following the accident resulted in his loss of feeling from the waist down.
"With the spinal cord there was a complete sever, so all the nerves were damaged, like a break. So they (the doctors) had to go in and fuse it back together and get it as best as they can."
My perception on who I am has changed from being a disabled kid to now identifying myself as a serious athlete.
"The biggest challenge I’ve come across in my life has been overcoming my own perceptions about who I am and what I can do," said Noah.
"When I first got injured, my life just wasn’t the same anymore. I was depressed because I knew i was different and at the time I thought because I’m in a wheelchair that I couldn’t do anything. But after all these years, finding wheelchair basketball and rediscovering who I am, my perception on who I am has changed from being a disabled kid, to now identifying myself as a serious athlete."
Ryan told NITV that 2014 was his first year playing at the College level.
"I came on a recruitment trip. I was invited by one of my friends on the Australian (wheelchair basketball) team, Jannik Blair, and I came over with my mate Jordy and yeah, we've been here for five years."
"The biggest challenge has been living so far away from my family. I’m pretty isolated here and it gets tiring at times, I just miss my family a lot." Ryan told NITV that this also led to his most rewarding moment when all the hard work payed off after 4 years, he won the National Championship for the first time in the 2017-2018 season.
"But I imagine graduating with a degree in five months will also be a highlight."
Ryan loves meeting Indigenous Wheelchair Basketball players and thinks it's awesome.
My current work with the Red Dust Heelers and Outback Academy allows me to visit Aboriginal communities and meet so many new talents in the indigenous community.
"My current work with the Red Dust Heelers and Outback Academy allows me to visit Aboriginal communities and meet so many new talents in the indigenous community. I think it’s great seeing new players emerge, being able to represent our culture.
"It always adds to my interest learning about their culture. It’s very important to me to know more about other cultures and for others to know about mine."
When on the court, Ryan has "white line fever" focusing on his own game. However he does notice when playing with other Indigenous people that there is a proud camaraderie whether playing together or against each other.
Ryan has the message of 'Keep moving forward' for anyone trying to cope with their own disabilities.
Clarence said that he has always had a love for basketball and started playing able-bodied basketball in 2004 when he was 11 years old living in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
"I played for the Memo Magic at the time and it was my coach at the time who mentioned to my parents about wheelchair basketball, and the following year when we moved back to Darwin I heard there was a wheelchair basketball competition at the Darwin Basketball Association and yeah, started in 2005 and the rest is history."
For Clarence, playing at the College level all originated back to Alice Springs as the first step then getting in to the social league in Darwin the following year, he told NITV that he felt that he was on a more competitive level with everyone else.
"I went to my first Nationals at the end of 2005, at the Melbourne Pacific School Games and I got to explore that there were more options out there for me or for other people or kids with disabilities and that opened my eyes up a bit and by the time it came for me getting to High School, in 2008 I ended up deciding I wanted to go to boarding school and to live in Sydney to play wheelchair basketball but also to get a better education as well."
Clarence said that the move to America in 2016 was very tough on him. "The biggest challenge for me was trying to get familiar with being in another country and learning about the area and the lingo that’s used over here in Texas. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from a lot of the guys on my team and they too have wanted to understand my culture as well."
However the most rewarding thing for him is that he was very blessed to be given a wonderful opportunity to go and study at UTA and play wheelchair basketball in the college system. "Also the fact that I get to live in the United States and experience what it’s like living in another country is a really amazing opportunity, because it’s one of those once in a lifetime opportunity". He was also joyful when reflecting on winning his first College Championship in his freshman year, the 2016-2017 season.
"From my perspective about meeting other Indigenous wheelchair basketball players – When I first met Ryan back in Melbourne in 2009 at the Australian Paralympic Youth Games (APYG) it was deadly getting to meet him and although he was with the WA Junior team and I was with the NSW Junior team.
I was just really happy to see that there was another young fella like myself who was now playing wheelchair basketball and the cool part about our friendship is that we were both selected to represent our country
"I was just really happy to see that there was another young fella like myself who was now playing wheelchair basketball and the cool part about our friendship is that we were both selected to represent our country for the Australian U23 Spinners Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team together to play at the U23 Men’s World Championships in Adana, Turkey in 2013 in which we won the Bronze medal against a tough Great Britain team.
"When I first met Noah it was actually last year at a college tournament in Mizzou, I heard he was Native American and I went up to him to introduce myself and just to meet him and let him know that I’m another Indigenous fella and that I am from Australia."
Clarence said that meeting other Indigenous wheelchair basketball players has definitely given him interest in learning more about their cultures.
"Most of my team mates on the UTA Movin’ Mavs team are from all over the USA and the World. We have a lot of International Students at UTA in general and the wheelchair basketball program is well known for having so many international student-athletes. Since coming to UTA I’ve had team mates from Venezuela, South Africa, Japan, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Cayman Islands and also another mate from Adelaide who came to UTA with me in my first year."
Clarence believes that your background doesn't define you on the court, he finds that there is not really a difference in competitiveness between Indigenous players and non-Indigenous players and that skills and talent are based on each individual's ability in their own basketball chairs.
Playing against Ryan I’ve always felt the competitiveness level is very high because we’re both trying to our best to try and win for our team but at the same time doing our best to represent our mob.
"But to add to the question even more – growing up and playing against Ryan I’ve always felt the competitiveness level is very high because we’re both trying to our best to try and win for our team but at the same time doing our best to represent our mob and we also play in similar positions in wheelchair basketball which also makes it even more competitive."
Clarence has been selected for the Australian Rollers Squad and he hopes to represent his country at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
The advice that he would want to give to all kids out there, disabled or not is,
"You're not going to really know your worth unless you get out of your comfort zone... so get out of your comfort zone if you can and I believe the opportunities are endless."
In 2012, Noah got into wheelchair basketball after attending a wheelchair sports camp down in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"Once I saw other kids playing the sport, like having fun. I was immediately hooked on to the level of competition that they had and then I really started training for it and I actually started on a team, two years after that.
Noah explained that he got recruited to play at the College level by Matt Buchi, the Head Coach of the University of Illinois Wheelchair Basketball team.
"He saw me at Nationals, and was impressed on what I was able to do and he kind of walked up to me and said 'Hey, I'd like you to come join our team' he offered me a scholarship, so if my grades were good enough and my ACT's were good enough you know, I applied and I got in and you know, I got the scholarship and everything fell in place and now I play for the University of Illinois."
Noah told NITV that one of his most rewarding moments happened when he was in his senior year of high school.
"My dad and I ran a one day wheelchair basketball camp at our local elementary school. We got to teach the fourth graders on the basics of wheelchair basketball then we would let them play. I remember having these two kids one had CP (Cerebral Palsy), and the other had a let discrepancy and I remember how happy they were to play basketball with their peers. Having fun, shooting shots. After we finished they always contact me telling me their accomplishments and the new tricks they’ve learned playing wheelchair basketball."
Just having that opportunity to meet someone who is indigenous from another country is something that excites me.
For Noah, it’s awesome getting to meet other indigenous wheelchair basketball players.
"Just having that opportunity to meet someone who is indigenous from another country is something that excites me. Because I have that opportunity to now only to play against or with them. But also to get to learn about their culture and their story.
"Learning about another culture is really fascinating to me. About different ceremonies or different mindsets when going about things. Another thing I find that’s important is to learn their story and experiences throughout their life."
Much like Clarence, Noah's message to other young Indigenous people with disabilities is to get out there and don't be scared.
"I know for me what held me back the most was that I was too scared to meet other disabled people, and really get myself out there and so what I would say to you guys is really be confident, get yourself out there, learn about the opportunities you have and then go chase your dreams."
Noah has recently been selected to attend the Team USA try-outs for wheelchair basketball in January.
These three young men are doing their Countries and their people proud, be sure to keep an on them as their careers develop further.
Grayson McCarthy-Grogan is an NITV Digital Producer and is passionate about Sports, Politics and Indigenous Affairs. For more articles by Grayson or to contact about stories, find him on Twitter @GraysonMcG