By Andrew Wroblewski
Meghan Chiodo was born with a spinal genetic defect known as spina bifida, an incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord or their protective coverings. Since birth, the Elwood resident has had trouble walking – she uses orthotics, crutches and a wheelchair for long distances – and, because of that, didn’t get to participate in activities, like sports, alongside her friends.
But then came her eighth birthday.
“I got this little basketball hoop,” she said, “and I really had fun with it. So I said to my mom: ‘You must find me a wheelchair basketball team.’”
Now, four years later, Meghan has joined up with the New York Rolling Fury, a youth wheelchair basketball program made up of children in conditions similar to Meghan from Long Island and New York City.
For Meghan, the Rolling Fury became her “second family” back when she was just 8 years old, when the program was known as the Long Island Lightning. Kerri, Meghan’s mother, discovered the program and her daughter stepped right in, despite being its youngest and only female member.
“They became my big brothers,” Meghan, now 12 and a student at Elwood Middle School, said, “I fit right in.”
Those four words hold true for just about all of the program’s 17 members. Students, younger than 21 and enrolled in high school or below, come from all over Long Island and New York City to practice at St. Anthony’s High School every other weekend and travel to tournaments with the Rolling Fury – which Kerri said is the only youth wheelchair basketball program in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“They’ve grown together and are an incredible group of kids,” Kerri, now secretary and treasurer for the program, said.
Other Long Island representatives include: Travis Ancewicz, an 11-year-old also from Elwood; Alex Obert-Thron, an 18-year-old enrolled at Half Hollow Hills High School West; Antonio Hidalgo, a 15-year-old from South Huntington; Victoria O’Brien, a 12-year-old from Dix Hills; Marcos Taveras, an 18-year-old from Great Neck; Alex Ruiz, a 17-year-old; and Breanna Clark, a 12-year-old from Selden. All have been relegated to a wheelchair for most, or some of their lives, and for different reasons – but, for all of the program’s members, one thing remains the same.
“I wasn’t intimidated [when I joined],” Breanna, who was born with back and knee defects – known as sacral agenesis – that prevent her from standing, said. “I just fit right in, talked with the kids and built some relationships.”
The kids aren’t the only ones building those relationships, Breanna’s mother Laura said.
“This isn’t just therapy for the kids, it’s for the moms and dads too,” Laura said. “We like to say that when we’re with our ‘walking’ friends we wear a mask. But when we’re with this group [the Rolling Fury] we can really let our hair down, talk about the common quirks our children have and it becomes therapy for us [as parents].”
“Therapy,” yes, but don’t let that fool you; when the Rolling Fury takes the court, it’s all business. The program – which is broken down into three levels, prep (ages 12 and under), junior varsity and varsity (both up to age 21) – plays in tournaments around the Northeast; they’ll be in Philadelphia Jan. 23-25 for a tournament that will serve as a qualifier for the national championship later this year.
The teams compete under the rules of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, which means they’re mostly following standard high school rules with a few adjustments – such as the ability to place the ball in one’s lap and touch the wheels of their chair twice, to steer or move forward, before needing to bounce the ball or pass; this serves as dribbling.
“Once you watch them compete you forget that they’re in chairs,” Chris Bacon, president and head coach for the program, said. “They can be typical athletes and do some awesome things on the court… They’re very inspiring.”
In 2012 the varsity Rolling Fury were national champions. In 2013, the program focused on rebuilding as several of its members left to compete in college – including Bacon’s son, Christopher, who now plays for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“During our last two tournaments we earned a lot of experience, but we’ve had a pretty large break between that last tournament and the upcoming qualifier,” Bacon, of Dix Hills, said. “We’re going to keep working on things at practice… But we’re excited. I think we’re going to have a good showing [in Philadelphia].”
The Rolling Fury is also in the planning stages of hosting its own tournament – something it’s done the past, but not recently. If all goes according to plan, Bacon hopes to host the tournament in late March at a local high school with participation from several teams in the Rolling Fury’s conference.
In order to participate in these tournaments – and perhaps host their own – Bacon stressed the importance of donations.
“We run completely off donations and the kindness of the community,” Bacon, 49, said. “These wheelchairs are very expensive – between $2,000-$3,000 each – since they’re specifically made to fit the kids and we’ve been building the program so fast that we’ve actually run out of chairs to loan out.”
To learn more about the Rolling Fury visit www.leaguelineup.com/nyrollingfury. Donations can be made to New York Rolling Fury - Wheelchair Basketball at PO Box 501 Greenlawn, NY 11740.