Darlene Hunter remembers well her first Paralympics competition as a member of the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team.
While it was thrilling, she’d like a little more out of this year’s Games. Like, say, a gold medal.
The 2012 team was made up of some of the best players in the world, but it failed to win a medal after the 2004 and 2008 teams won the gold.
“The U.S. is always on the podium. It felt bad not being there,” Hunter said. “We really want to get back.”
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Hunter, in a wheelchair since age 4 because of an accident involving a road grader, is one of two Arlington residents competing in this year’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Joining her Sept. 7-18 for the Rio Paralympics will be teammate Abby Dunkin, a member of the 2016 national champion UTA Lady Movin’ Mavs, and UTA track and field athlete Tobi Fawehinmi. Alex Pabon is an alternate for the wheelchair rugby team, though he will not make the trip to Brazil.
Also participating from North Texas are Grand Prairie’s Aaron Gouge, a UTA graduate, in wheelchair basketball, Pamela Fontaine of Highland Village in table tennis and Mesquite’s Deja Young in track and field.
Like Hunter, Fawehinmi competed in 2012 in London. And likewise, he came close to a medal, finishing fifth in the triple jump, along with 10th in the long jump. In May, Fawehinmi broke the world record in the triple jump with a mark of 15.53 meters, according to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he is a senior and a member of the track team. He will only be competing in the long jump in Rio de Janeiro as the triple jump is no longer a part of Paralympic competition.
“It stinks that they took away triple jump, but I’m really focused on the long jump. I think the U.S. can sweep this event,” Fawehinmi said.
Fawehinmi, 21, was born with shoulder dystocia, which resulted in an underdeveloped left arm. While it qualifies him for the Paralympics, it has never held him back from competing and winning at the high school and college levels. He won a bronze medal at the state meet in the triple jump for Mansfield Summit High School in 2013.
“Nothing has ever stopped me from doing what I want to do,” he said.
Fawehinmi called his experience in London a blessing. Though he didn’t medal, having been there has him better prepared for Rio, he said.
“I was young. It was like a blur sometimes,” he said. “I’m older, smarter, more knowledgeable about my jumps, and I’ve grown up a lot.
“Also, being at UTA has been a blessing to me. Best choice I could have made. I’ve learned so much.”
Unlike the youthful Fawehinmi, the 34-year-old Hunter realizes that this could be her last chance to compete in the Paralympics. But she tries not to think about that and instead focuses on bringing a gold medal back to the United States.
“I want to live in the moment, appreciate every moment,” she said. “I’m savoring everything. So many people in life never get that experience, and for me to get there twice is amazing.
“But there is a job to do.”
Team USA women’s wheelchair basketball returns five members from the 2012 squad, Hunter said. A sixth player who was on the 2004 and 2008 champions is back after skipping the Games in 2012.
In a pre-Paralympics event, the U.S. women traveled to Germany, where they split games with the host country and defeated the Netherlands, to whom they lost in the third-place game in 2012.
“We’re really focused, ready to go,” Hunter said. “It felt great to beat the Netherlands.”
“We can go 12 deep on the bench,” she added. “We are going to be very tough to beat.”
Hunter was a track competitor until she experienced a bout with scoliosis at age 16 and had to have rods placed in her back. Having once dreamed of being on the Paralympic track team, she was forced to switch sports.
“My body wasn’t the same after surgery. I could never get the strokes back needed for track,” she said. “But I enjoy the team concept of basketball, and this team has a special chemistry.”
Pabon also switched sports for the Paralympics. A wheelchair basketball player who earned a scholarship to play for UT Arlington, he was noticed by a wheelchair rugby coach and later began playing that sport for a team called the Texas Stampede. That led to his selection as an alternate for this year’s Paralympics, and now he has his sights on making the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“If I stay in college and get three or four years of basketball along with my rugby training, I’ll be better off and hopefully ready to go,” Pabon said.
Asked why he didn’t try to make the Paralympics in basketball, Pabon said that even though he’s only played the sport a year, “I feel I’m more of an impact player in rugby, and it’s definitely a fun sport.”
Pabon, 25, uses a wheelchair and prosthetic legs as a result of Grebes syndrome. The farther away his limbs are from his body, the smaller they are. He’s been in a wheelchair since 2008 after having his legs amputated.
It was also then that his mother gave him a flier that started him on his way to wheelchair competition.
“It had a little kid in a wheelchair holding a ball. It piqued my curiosity,” Pabon said. “It’s all about adjusting. It’s not like life stops.
“Who’s going to say what four years from now holds? Going to UTA will help so much. We train so hard.”