Her parents call her “Luchona.”
That means fighter - a perfect nickname for Katherine Valdez. Well, perfect now.
Throughout a journey filled with doubt and failure, friends and family picked her up, energizing her to become that Luchona.
Life had been simple for Valdez. She lived with her parents, sister, and dog, strongly preferring studying over athletics.
“I played soccer when I was younger [10–13 years old] but just for fun, not at a competitive level.”
She also found enjoyment going out with her cousins and friends.
The ease of her youth abruptly ended thirteen years ago after a wholly unexpected event in her hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador. It involved a gun and a bullet and her getting shot and. . . .
Tears flow down her beautiful face when she attempts to provide details.
All that needs to be known is that a bullet entered her stomach, severely damaging her spine. That moment put her in “a very dark place” for years while she adjusted to her disability and tried to find a space to be herself.
“It really made me reevaluate ‘what can I do?’ for my future… what can I aspire to be?” she said with her melodic Ecuadorian accent.
Needing a wheelchair brought an additional battle. “Getting from point A to point B was a huge worry for me,” because of the absence of buses with ramps or wheelchair-accessible taxis in Guayaquil.
As a result, Valdez’s life in Ecuador became stagnant. “It was very boring. My life was just trying to get to work, go to physical therapy, and then I will stay at home most of the time.”
At that point, adaptive sports never crossed Valdez’s mind. She recalled Googling about her injury and how people in wheelchairs spend their time, stumbling upon Paralympic sports in countries like the US and Canada.
“I remember thinking okay, that would be cool. But I can't do that, I am here [in Ecuador]. I will never try any of that. So, I never thought I was going to be able to play any sports.”
Empire State of Mind
This all changed when Valdez’s family moved to New York City.
This big move necessitated some big changes for Valdez. With the support of her family, she found an inner confidence to begin pushing herself. And the previously non-competitive “Kat” decided she would become a serious athlete.
She took up adaptive tennis at the UTSA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“I met other people, I saw other wheelchair users. And just little by little, I was getting more involved in the adaptive sports world.”
She then fell in love with rowing after attending an open house at Queens College and subsequently encountered Row New York. She has since taken a second place at the BAYADA Regatta despite being the only woman in the race.
“I played multiple sports and each of them has taught me something buried in me, and one of the things that it taught me the most is that I can be very independent.” But she added, “I played solo sports… that was my comfort zone.”
Comfort zone is clearly an understatement. After completing the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May, Valdez has decided to prepare for the NYC Marathon. She also has another little aspiration - make the Para-rowing Team USA.
This all begs the question: What about basketball? This is College Basketball Times, right?
Well, Valdez did not immediately take a liking to basketball, despite the efforts of her friend Luis. Then again, that could have been because of the efforts of Luis.
“One day he invited me to the park to play [basketball]. I didn't like it. He came up to me and hit me with a ball in the face. That was no fun. Yeah, not a very good start,” she said with her characteristic nearly non-stop laugh.
(Note to the residents of Queens: should the feared brown-out occur this summer, worry not - Valdez has a smile bright enough to light up the entire borough.)
Valdez instead decided she needed an intellectual challenge. So in 2019, she enrolled in the City University of New York (CUNY), New York City’s Public University system at the York College campus to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Community Health Education with a minor in Psychology.
Additionally, she began working for the York College Office of Disability Services and is an advocate of accessibility rights on campus and the Metro Transportation Authority in NYC.
Around that time, Ryan Martin, CUNY’s wheelchair basketball coach, and Advisor for Inclusive Sports reached out and invited her to basketball practice.
Valdez, remembered her previous experience with basketball and thought, “This is not my thing. It’s too many things going on.”
But when Martin explained his intent to create an all-women’s basketball team, Valdez agreed to shove her inhibitions aside.
“Usually in the past, I have been playing with men and they're very different, I didn't feel very comfortable. So that changed my mind,” and she thought, “‘Okay, I think I can do this with all females. That probably will be a better experience.’”
Valdez now faced a new obstacle: funding her desire to be a student-athlete.
One of the biggest challenges for adaptive college athletes is not just the scarcity of resources and opportunities, but funds to sustain themselves while playing.
“In our team, most of us have a full-time job. But if there is some kind of financial help, I believe that they will be able to attract even more people from the community.”
Valdez contends that offering more scholarships to help students finance books and tuition would give time to the many athletes like her who were already juggling both school and work.
A New Family
Valdez managed to overcome the financial anxieties, and asserts that the bonds with her team somehow made those commitments seem minor.
“What I liked and what made me stay was the energy, it was the community. My teammates always welcomed me.”
They do so even though she initially asked questions - many, many questions. Like: What’s a free-throw line?
“My coach and teammates were very patient with me and they were willing to teach me and repeat the same thing over and over.”
Yet, Valdez remembered beating herself up because of errors in the beginning.
“I couldn’t get up to [the team’s] level. I felt that I was not progressing.”
Once again the team and Coach Martin stepped in to help keep Valdez battling.
“He would let me know [I was] improving. He would be my sports psychologist,” Valdez laughed.
And Seira Larrauri Garcia, the team captain noted, “She’s one of the most teachable people that I’ve met and she’s come a long way from when I first met her. I’m tremendously proud of her and can’t wait to see how far [the team] can go,” Garcia said of the player’s improvement.
These sentiments made Valdez feel like a true part of a family, albeit, “a very dysfunctional one,” she joked.
After lots of practice, Valdez became a defensive specialist.
“I am definitely defense. I don't like high contact but I can go and block you. I can be aggressive.”
This mentality also helped her excel at sealing - clearing paths for the team’s main shooters so they could get to the basket.
But you might want to beware when this Kat has the ball.
“I am small so I know many people will think, ‘she can’t shoot well,’ but sometimes I have my opportunities. I take it and I shoot. I like the surprise factor.”
She got to take that surprise factor all the way to Texas with her team in March for the 2022 Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball National Championship - CUNY’s first time in the tournament.
This, however, came with a new hurdle for Valdez - getting there.
Valdez had very much enjoyed prior road trips with both the women's and men's teams where most of the time was passed through humor. She recalled gleefully that a men’s team player felt compelled to “meow” at “Kat” every chance he got.
But for Nationals, Valdez, for her very first time had to travel by air with the responsibility for not one by two wheelchairs. Feel free to guess who helped her fight through this fear.
“I was very anxious about it. But then my teammates gave me the support, the strength to just go… and just try.”
Though things did not work out as hoped at the tournament, the team did score an impressive 21 points against Arizona thanks in large part to the shooting of Siera Larrauri Garcia and Crystal Jones - and some stellar seals by Kat.
Practice Makes Perfect
CUNY ended the 2021–2022 season with an overall record of 3–8. Still, the team trains non-stop to improve their skills.
Valdez’s team regime includes weightlifting at CUNY’s facilities where she puts extra emphasis on her shoulders, which contain some of the muscles most integral to wheelchair basketball.
Working out in public spaces used to worry Valdez, but she conquered this thanks to the team.
“I didn’t like going to the gym. People staring at me used to make me feel uncomfortable. When you're with your team, you're just one more athlete in the weight room working out.”
The grind doesn’t stop there.
“After that, we go to the court for plays and for everything that needs to be polished and improved.”
There’s also something Valdez doesn’t want her coach to know.
“Now I go very often and I really love it. Don't tell Ryan. I really love this sport now,” Valdez said with that wide smile.
Valdez has indeed come a long way. Yes, Ecuador is a long way from NYC, but that’s not exactly the point.
With the help of her team and coach, she persevered through mental and physical hardships to become a CUNY star on and off the court.
Now Valdez is the one helping her team.
“I can say that, as one of the captains, she was my rock. She’s the one that came to me every time she saw me struggling and that’s something that I will always have with me and appreciate and respect. She would bring inspirational quotes to the team here and there and will always have something nice to say,” Garcia said.
The combination of her newly obtained basketball skills and her 4.0 GPA led to a truly amazing accomplishment: being named CUNY scholar-athlete of they year.
She believes what she has gone through to become a valuable college basketball player has off-court applicability as well.
“With basketball, you just learn to keep shooting and keep trying to get it. So you can apply that to work and to school. It taught me to be more kind to myself and believe that I can do it even if I failed two times. That skill is very helpful in general.”
But don’t call her an “inspiration.”
For many in the adaptive sports community, it should not be “inspiring” to simply see a wheelchair user pursue normal activities like sports.
Instead, applaud Valdez on her willingness to fight through stagnation, learn the ins and outs of a new sports, as well as balance work, school, activism, and competition– only to come out an even better athlete.
Valdez wants people to feel invigorated by this kind of resilience when they read her story, especially since the pandemic has taken away their confidence and vigor.
“Many people stopped doing what they love. So some people feel motivated to go back because of what I do. I am good with that. I’m happy that they’re happy.”
Her mom, Maria Elena, believes in her daughter more than anyone.
She said passionately in Spanish, “[Katherine] pushed forward and became a driving force of the sport she loves. I know she has lots of potential and that she will achieve and triumph in whatever she sets her mind to.”
She added, “Katherine es una luchona.”
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