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Prince Albert's Erica Gavel has worked extremely hard to become as good as possible in her new sport and it looks like that work is paying off. Gavel will be attending the University of Alabama on a full scholarship in the fall in addition to working towards securing a spot on the national women's wheelchair basketball squad.
Listening to the excitement in Erica Gavel’s voice one would be hard pressed to imagine her ever being depressed.
The Carlton Comprehensive High School grad has had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the last four years, but throughout it all she has tried to keep an even keel. Sometimes that is easier said than done.
“This year has been an emotional roller coaster for me,” says Gavel. “At the start of my first semester (last fall) I was told I would never play competitive sports again. I thought I had experienced my last practise. Now I have a whole new appreciation for going to practise.”
The reason for that appreciation is that Gavel has excelled at a new sport in an incredibly short period of time and the future now holds far more promise than what it did 10 months ago.
The former basketball standout with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies is now a member of Canada’s national women’s wheelchair basketball team and if everything goes according to plan she will be competing in the Paralympics Games in Brazil in 2016.
Before that even takes place, however, Gavel is relocating to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this fall to begin a five-year full ride with the Crimson Tide.
To understand how all this came to be, let’s backtrack four years to when Gavel was a standout basketball player with the Carlton Crusaders.
At 5-foot-11, Gavel was one of the premiere female high school basketball players in the province and several schools were courting her with scholarship offers.
Gavel chose the U of S and for the first year everything went according to plan with the freshman playing a key role in helping the Huskies become one of the top college programs in the nation.
Little did she know that the beginning of the end was just around the corner.
A knee injury at the end of her first season forced Gavel to have surgery, but like most athletes who are in good shape she recovered quickly and was ready for her sophomore year in the fall.
Gavel once again played most of the season, but a cartilage tear in the same knee sent her back for more surgery and ultimately cost her the entire 2011-12 season. After 18 months of rehab Gavel was working to get back into shape when she reinjured the knee yet again during a pre-season scrimmage last August.
That was when she was informed that she had a micro-fracture – no cartilage between the femur and the tibia – and that her competitive sports career was likely finished.
“I was really depressed,” says Gavel. “I had just spent hundreds and hundreds of hours rehabbing it and training.”
Gavel had to deal with the reality of not being on the court, but she refused to believe that she could never play the game again.
Remembering a classmate from one of her earlier courses had mentioned wheelchair basketball Gavel tracked her down not even knowing her name. The timing couldn’t have been better as the classmate was going to a practise that weekend and Gavel tagged along to see what it was all about.
This was last November and just two months later Gavel was going to a tournament in Calgary when “everything clicked.”
“That’s when my training had a purpose rather than just going for a workout,” explains Gavel.
“Hearing my coaches (Lisa Thomaidis with the Huskies and Lisa Frank with wheelchair basketball) and my trainer (Bruce Craven) say go for it brought everything into focus and I had to switch my goals. I’m really happy to be able to buy into a new program.”
Her athletic ability and knowledge of the game gave her an edge in her new sport and by March, Gavel was going to a skills camp in Edmonton with the national team. Gavel caught another break around that time when a player on the national squad became sick leaving a spot open and the 22-year-old Gavel quickly slid into that position with the team.
“I actually didn’t find it that hard,” says Gavel of the transition from playing the game on your feet as opposed to sitting in a chair. “There is a different strategy, obviously, but with my background I was able to see things differently.”
“The toughest part is the agility (required),” adds Gavel.
So, how does an able-bodied athlete become a wheelchair athlete when they are not in need of the chair for everyday living? The answer to that is simple.
“There are different classifications and by the second week of December it was determined that I was classifiable,” says Gavel. “It goes from 0.5 to 4.5 with 4.5 being the lowest (disability). I’m at 4.5.”
That classification qualifies Gavel for the national team and with her being inserted in the roster to fill the vacancy created by a sickness, she has already seen some benefits – Alabama among them.
During the winter the national team goes down south to work out and while in Alabama the coach of the Crimson Tide program saw Gavel in action and offered her a full scholarship on the spot.
Gavel has also just recently returned from a trip to Europe with the national team which saw her play a tournament in Cologne, Germany, prior to attending a training camp in Great Britain.
Now she has less than a month to get ready for the move to Alabama and she readily admits there are some mixed emotions.
“I’m very attached to Saskatoon and the university,” admits Gavel. “But, I’m super excited to be able to play university sports again. I watched two years of practises and it sucks.”
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to do this,” adds Gavel.
The time in Alabama will be used to get better at her new sport as Gavel, who is finishing up her degree in kinesiology and will work towards a master’s degree while down south, will be hoping to get a permanent spot on the national team when selections take place in January.
“The turnover is low in wheelchair sports,” says Gavel. “I feel everything is in my control and I will do what I have to do.”
There is a lot to look forward to and if Gavel makes the national team there will be even more. Toronto will be the site of the world championships next year and then there are the under-25 world championships in Australia in 2015. That is all a precursor for the Paralympics Games in Brazil in 2016.
Gavel can’t believe how her life has changed in just 10 short months. She believes now, more than ever, to never give up on your dreams. While she realizes she is fortunate that she can get out of the chair after a game or practise and others can’t, that doesn’t take away from what she is trying to achieve.
“I have met a lot of really cool people,” says Gavel. “They are optimistic-positive people and that is what I am.”
“I don’t feel guilty, but I do have sympathy,” adds Gavel. “I help as much as possible, but you don’t want to make them feel needy.”
Gavel has endured a lot of heartache in recent years, but it looks like the Tide has changed.