A Tale Of Two Lindseys
Photographs by: Craig Schreiner
Lindsey Zurbrugg lives a dual life of intense precision and boundless energy. On the basketball court, she’ll find a seam and slice up the defense with a perfect pass. After the game, she’ll grab an orange off the training table and amaze teammates as she carves it into a beautiful citrus goose. Yes, you read that correctly - she whittles animals out of fruit skins. Whether it’s a 3-2 zone or a mid-day snack, Lindsey will cut it up just right and have a great time doing it.
It is this perfect combination of deep dedication and optimistic free-spiritedness that allows her to be amongst the best of the best in the world.
On the court, she’s “Zurbs" or “Zurbie" — the ball player who will work her ass off to beat you. Off the court, she’s Lindsey — the girl who owns hundreds of pairs of silly socks and loves “old” shows like Emergency! and M*A*S*H, yet sources say she has only recently learned of Jennifer Aniston.
Yes, it is her prolific scoring that led her to college ball at Wisconsin-Whitewater. It then helped earn her membership with a bunch of women who call themselves USA’s Paralympic Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team. (Yeah, wow is right.)
Scoring, however, is just a small piece of what makes Zurbrugg a havoc-wreaking force. The real key to her success, both on and off the court, is the balance between her competitive spirit and fun-loving nature.
“As soon as you get on the court, know that I'm going to kill you and I'm going to do everything I can to dominate you,” Zurbrugg said. “But we’re still going to be friendly after the game. It’s not personal, it’s just basketball.”
That determination, along with compassion, is, well, Lindsey.
“She just always had this need to have some kind of physical prowess,” said her mother, Laura Zurbrugg. When Lindsey was turning 11 years old, she asked for bigger biceps.
Eventually, she got her wish and she’s not afraid to show it off.
“I arm wrestled at a baby shower,” Zurbrugg said with a laugh. “She challenged me and I was like ‘alright bring it on.’ I don’t care that you’re pregnant, I’m still going to beat you."
“On the court and in the right environment she is super competitive, but she keeps that competitiveness in the right area,” said Jeremy “Opie” Lade, director of wheelchair athletics and the men’s head coach at Whitewater. “She is a great basketball player because of who she is as a person.”
Zurbs is the baller who will hit a buzzer beater with no sweat, or drain eight three-pointers to get the crowd on its feet in Whitewater's Williams Center. Lindsey is the girl who grew up on a farm with a family of hunters, taxidermists and a pet pigeon named Earl.
When Zurbugg was a little girl, she dreamt of winning an Olympic medal. Since then, her life has changed a lot, but her pursuit of gold hasn’t. By staying balanced, she has overcome every challenge and is ready to pursue the ultimate prize at the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics.
Growing up in rural Oregon, she used to play games with her older brother, Collin. He quickly gave up trying to beat his sister because she just kept figuring out ways to win. She would decipher his strategies, predict his every move, and take every little advantage she could find.
“Poor Collin,” her father, Chris Zurbrugg, joked. “How would you like a sibling that just beats you at everything? That’s what Lindsey did to him. No wonder he didn't like to play games.”
Lindsey was always on the move. Her parents tell stories of her doing cartwheels around the house during movie nights, jumping off rope swings from the shed and chasing the elk that lived in her backyard. Who chases an elk? Lindsey Zurbrugg, that’s who.
And as a homeschooled kid, basketball provided her an outlet to make friends with her infectious positivity and ferocious competitive side.
Basketball, and life, however, got a lot more complicated just as Lindsey was starting to grow her game.
At 13 years old, Zurbrugg attended a basketball camp. One morning, she felt shooting pains while stretching.
36 hours later she was paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors diagnosed her with Tethered Cord Syndrome, a rare neurological disease where the spinal cord attaches to tissues surrounding the spine, resulting in nerve damage and, in severe cases, permanent paralysis.
Chris and Laura Zurbrugg thought their daughter, who was always on her feet, who always had the wind running through her hair, would be devastated. Lindsey proved them wrong.
Lindsey’s positivity throughout her recovery gave her parents a constant source of hope.
“We were all there to support her, waiting for her to get down so we could hold her and comfort her,” her father said. “But there was none of that. She was just positive. She never, ever, ever said ‘why me?’, or was mopey. She just stayed positive.”
Just over a year after her diagnosis, Zurbrugg rolled her wheelchair back on the court, her gold medal dreams stronger than ever.
“As soon as I hopped in a basketball chair, it opened up a whole world of speed and agility and power,” Lindsey said.
She doesn’t settle for surviving with her disability, she thrives with it. To Zurbrugg, being disabled is worth celebrating.
“People think that a lot of disabled people are depressed and are like ‘Oh woe is me. I'm having such a wretched life’.” Zurbrugg, of course, opts for a different attitude. “Be happy. Be grateful for what you still have. I always think I could be more paralyzed, it could be something worse.”
Lindsey Keeps the Faith
All elite athletes need a little outside help as they pursue excellence. For Zurburgg and her family, it was the Bethany Baptist Church in Portland that provided guidance and support during the tough times.
“My friends, family and church members have always been super supportive."
Her parents said the church helped them come to a deeper understanding of Lindsey’s new challenges.
“It may not be the path we chose, but it’s been a good journey,” Laura Zurbrugg said. “It’s given her opportunities she wouldn’t have had otherwise. There’s just an overall sense that this is something God is using for good in her life.”
Faith also helped Lindsey discover a new level of meaning in her pursuit of athletic success.
In addition, at Upward Bound, a Christian sports camp in Oregon that Lindsey attended prior to her injury, they “intertwined different bits of religion," she said.
“It taught me how to be humble, respect my coaches no matter what, respect others, like golden rule sort of things. They put the basis for a lot of that in there."
The Bridge To Familial Waters
While Lindsey’s faith gave her strength and motivation, there was one thing her local community was lacking: top-level competition. Despite living just outside of Portland — a town with an NBA franchise and countless able-bodied AAU teams for aspiring youth to join — Lindsey couldn’t find a league strong enough to help pursue her collegiate and Paralympic goals.
This forced Zurbrugg and her mom to regularly take the three and a half hour trip all the way up to Seattle where Lindsey took part in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s developmental program.
“It was the coaches up there who really saw her potential,” Laura Zurbrugg said. “They would take Lindsey around to meet these college coaches and say ‘hey, you need to talk to this person or that.’ Really just getting her that exposure and getting her the offers to come and play ball at a college level and beyond.”
She started playing for Team USA by the time she was 17, competing in international competitions including the 2019 Parpan American Games in Lima, Peru where she helped her team take home a silver medal.
Lindsey was “classified" as a 2.5. Classifications in wheelchair basketball are organized from 1-5 with 5 being the most functional. Teams are allowed to play 5 players with a maximum classification of 14 points on the floor at once. Lindsey’s 2.5 means she has use of her upper-body, but nothing in her lower half. Like many 2.5s, Lindsey was trained as a mid-range shooter, took to it immediately, and starred for both Seattle’s men’s and women’s teams.
When the time for college came around, Lindsey was a bona fide star. A similarly talented, able-bodied star would have had UConn’s Geno Auriemma knocking down the door, with Stanford, Tennessee, and the hometown Oregon Ducks not far behind.
But the world of college women’s wheelchair basketball is different. There are only five teams: University of Alabama, University of Arizona, University of Illinois, University of Texas-Arlington and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Zurbrugg heard from them all except Alabama. (Though more on the Crimson Tide to come.)
While a great honor, the situation also presented a new challenge. Every team was hundreds of miles away from Zurbrugg’s close-knit family and faith community in Hillsboro, Oregon.
Ultimately, she chose the school that understood how important family and faith were to Lindsey’s success.
“When I was getting recruited, I asked one simple question: if my brother’s wedding happens to be the week before Nationals, can I go to his wedding and miss practices?” Clearly this question was not posed by the ruthless Zurbs who enjoyed demoralizing her brother in those backyard battles. No, that was asked by the family-focused, and fun-loving Lindsey.
Whitewater said yes, and Lindsey signed on, knowing her new home had its priorities straight with great fundamental basketball. And purple jerseys. And bratwurst. Not sure those were placed in the correct order.
What she didn’t realize when she came to Whitewater was that the Warhawks wheelchair basketball program would become her family too.
“She didn’t really know how to first fit in when she got here,” head coach Christina Schwab said. “But she had great teammates that brought her out of her shell.”
Soon enough, Zurbrugg was the star, and the clown, of the team. She played 40 minutes a game, often flooding the stat sheet. When she wasn’t doing that she was “redecorating" the office of UW-W nurse Melissa Miller with toilet paper or dipping her hand in a smoothie to convince Nurse Melissa she had a terrible skin rash.
“The nurse started screaming because my hand was swelling and bright red,” Zurbrugg joked with pride. “She started freaking out and I started laughing so hard. Just those nice friendly pranks make us all laugh, eventually.”
Similar moments with her coaches and teammates helped to build team morale with her eccentric exuberance.
“We’re just always razzing each other as a family,” Zurbrugg said.
UW-W became Lindsey’s family and a place where she could thrive on and off the court. Whether it was team meals at China House in Whitewater or half-off happy hour specials at Fuji Steakhouse, the team was a cohesive unit, and Zurbrugg was the glue.
Zurbs Inside the Lines
During her freshman year at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Lindsey emerged as the future of Team USA’s Paralympic team. Her coaches said she is a fundamentally sound player in all facets of the game.
“Zurbie is a stud, she’s always all over the box scores” Whitewater’s “Opie” Lade said. “People will probably say Lindsey is a great shooter, and she is, but the conversation doesn't stop there.”
The box scores that Lade talks about are not easily available to the general public and it can be hard to grasp Zurbrugg’s impact on the game without knowing how many points per game she’s had throughout her career. But honestly, you don’t need them. Zurburgg has been playing this game at an elite level basically since she learned how to dribble in a wheelchair. Anyone worth their chops throughout the sport will tell you to “watch out for Zurbie.”
“If there is ever a day where she isn’t shooting the ball well, which is super rare, she’s still going to have a positive impact on the team,” Lade said.
Zurbrugg was double teamed nearly every game at Whitewater, constantly trying to avoid the dirty plays. Opposing taller players would grab the back of her Top End wheelchair, prevent her from getting in the zone and put their elbows right in her chest.
But it doesn’t matter what you bring at Zurbrugg, you’re still going to feel her wrath on the court.
Lade said Zurbrugg is the kind of player who is always impacting the game even when she isn’t shooting her best because she is an all-around player who wants to win more than she wants to see her own success.
“I’m a shooter,” Zubrugg said. “But in my heart, I really just want to get assists even though I’m yelled at to be selfish and shoot.”
Her coaches had to teach her that instinct to pull the trigger more often.
“When you shoot the ball as well as Zurbie does, you want somebody like that shooting the ball more,” Lade said. “I mean if you were coaching Steph Curry, is he ever taking enough shots?”
Just like an NBA superstar, her coaches said it’s not uncommon for Lindsey to put the team on her back and impact the game in every way possible.
“I learn the other team,” she said. “I figure out what they’re doing and then I can beat them at their own game. I learn their tactics and then I’m ready for whatever is going to come at me.”
Zurbrugg plays a calculated style of basketball because she wants to be the best. She is always going to put in the effort to better herself.
“Every single camp I’ll show up stronger and quicker than last time,” she said.
And it shows. Lade describes her as a gym rat who never skips workouts or takes the easy route. “Our relationship grew because of her desire to be in the gym, workout and go above and beyond,” Lade said.
She is also a quick learner. She takes skills from teammates and fellow players all of whom she admires greatly. So much so, that she was afraid to list them all out of fear that she might forget someone. But if there is one who could be singled out it would be Mariska Beijer a senior on Whitewater’s team when Lindsey entered as a freshman.
Mariska aided immensely with Lindsey’s transition to college. "She taught me how to lift. She taught me work ethic, and to be a champion. I wanted to match the intensity she brought to campus and then teach that to the next generation there.”
Lindsey considers Mariska to be the number one player in the world. That would be great if they were still teammates. Unfortunately, Mariska will be playing for The Netherlands in the Paralympics. So who will get the better of whom? “Are you kidding me, she’s an absolute beast!” Lindsey said with seeming intent to compliment. "She could probably shoulder press me. She’s going to take me out a couple times.” Lindsey also added that Mariska is her best friend. Confused? Well, remember this was Lindsey speaking, not Zurbs.
Lindsey and Mariska
But you might be surprised to know that her biggest basketball influence was Barney. Turns out that’s not the dinosaur or Fred Flintstone’s pal, but Coach Schwab. Lindsey labeled her a "role model" and a “legend." Legend might actually be an understatement. Christina has not one, not two, but 3 Paralympic gold medals. She also claims to have “done” the Boston Marathon, but research reveals that’s not accurate. She “won” the Boston Marathon.
According to the coach, “Lindsey came in right away and told me I want to be on a Paralympic team. It was kind of a perfect match. I knew what it took to get there and she already had the raw talent and skills.”
Schwab said Zurbrugg was always coachable and always looking for ways to improve her game. It wasn’t just about improving big areas of the game like shooting or defense, she would hone in on little skills to perfect her game.
“She would always ask me those little questions,” Schwab said. “She has this extra piece where she doesn’t ever settle for being good. She has to be great.”
Well, Zurbs does. When asked for one of her favorite “Lindsey” stories Coach Schwab recalled a time alone cleaning her office desk. In the corner under some papers sat a note from Lindsey simply stating, “Love You Barn.” Coach thinks she might have teared up a bit. That’s ok coach, you don’t have to say "might have.” We’re right there with you.
Zurbrugg is now slated to be a starter and primary scorer for Team USA. Schwab and Lade both said her role on Team USA is a direct result of all the work she put in to getting stronger and honing her craft.
A Helping Hand
When she isn’t doing 6 a.m. weight lifts or fine tuning the agility of her chair turns, Zurbrugg is using her expressive personality to shine a light on the disability community.
“People need to be educated, people need to see us,” she said. “Any discomfort, I will overcome it just to help educate other people just be like ‘hey, we're normal.’”
Lindsey uses her platform to educate others about disabilities and to advocate for them. She regularly helps out with University Wisconsin-Whitewater’s wheelchair basketball clinics, which teach middle schoolers, high schoolers and even incoming students at the university about wheelchair basketball.
“That’s kind of my big mission statement,” she said. “I just want to do all that I can to help somebody else.”
One of her goals is trying to do something to decrease the costs associated with wheelchair basketball. All the flights, tournaments and necessary developmental camps are not cheap. Nor are those Top End “ball chairs” she loves. They range from $3000 to $4000, and have to be replaced every 3 or 4 years.
Lindsey would love it if the recognition that College Basketball Times intends to bring to Women’s College Wheelchair Basketball leads to more teams and more scholarships. We would love that too. Odds are even Zurbs would as well.
Jeremy Lade said Lindsey was always the first volunteer when it came to giving demonstrations to people around the state of Wisconsin.
“Whether it’s in an interview, on the basketball court or talking about her disability, she’s always done a great job of being an advocate for herself and being an advocate for wheelchair basketball.”
At these camps run by her former coaches, Lindsey frequently gets described as a role model and inspiration, but she doesn’t see herself that way.
“Anybody can motivate anybody,” she said. “If you want to be motivated by me, that’s great. Personally, I’m motivated by people who are good at math or who fold their laundry right after it comes out of the dryer.”
Zurbrugg said people love to pick her out as an inspirational sob story because she’s visibly different from able bodied people. She prefers to see herself just like every other 22 year old woman. She just uses a wheelchair. “I’ve just had more experiences to shape me in certain ways,” she said. “I still like all the normal stuff that kids do.”
While Lindsey would much prefer to fly under the radar, she has embraced the attention she receives for her disability through wheelchair basketball demonstrations, camps and even public speaking engagements.
So, remember how Alabama never recruited Lindsey? Well, that’s no longer correct. Following the Paralympic Games, Zurbrugg will be going there on scholarship to pursue a masters degree in nutrition while finishing her final year of eligibility on the court with the Crimson Tide. Though she still bleeds Warhawk purple and hasn’t yet perfected her “Roll Tide,” it was an offer she could not refuse. And she’ll get to play with Team USA teammate Bailey Moody.
Following her time at Alabama, Lindsey plans to give back to the sport that has given her so much. She wants to return to wheelchair basketball as an athletic trainer or nutritionist to help develop the next generation of players.
As her mother said, her education and basketball have always worked in tandem. “If it weren’t for wheelchair basketball, I don’t think she’d be doing that.” Her mother added that being on the court has always been her motivation to succeed in the classroom. Her degree from Alabama brings it all full circle.
“I want to be the person with a little bit of knowledge so athletes like me don’t have to waste their time doing the research,” Zurbrugg said. “Instead, they can focus on doing things to better their performance.”
Zurbrugg sees her future as a nutritionist as a way to not only help the sport of wheelchair basketball, but also help young women feel more comfortable in their own skin.
“For women my age, the hardest thing is accepting who you are,” she said. “You don’t have to be like somebody. Don’t try to be like them. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t worry about those other people.”
Zurbrugg has gotten her accolades at Whitewater and now with Team USA by being that best version of herself and always looking to improve day in and day out. She will take that best version of herself to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games starting on August 24. If you tune in on NBC, NBCSN or the Olympic Channel, you’ll likely see Zurbs trying to destroy her competition. Unfortunately, you probably won’t see Lindsey telling them she loves them afterward. But you now know she will.