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  • Writer's pictureMolly Cooper

Illinois' Ranley Clayton - Competitive yet Compassionate

When Ranley Clayton cruises around with her dog Adler, she is in her happy place. She loves driving her black Jeep Wrangler, engine revving, music bumping from the speakers, Adler’s head poking out a window.

Those who see the young woman at the wheel, probably do not notice that she drives with hand controls, and they do not know her story.

On August 9, 2014, 19-year-old Clayton was riding home from her friend’s house on her ATV. She lost control and her body was ejected. Racked with pain, she crawled to retrieve her phone and call her family. Clayton was taken to the hospital and the news was grim. She broke her T9 and T10 vertebrae, severed her spine, every rib and a finger were broken. Her life had forever changed.

After the accident, she did not let her injuries and being paralyzed from the waist down stop her from owning her dream car. In December of 2014, her family decided to trade in her Ultima and for her Wrangler. Clayton could not drive it until the hand controls were installed, so her mom was her chauffeur.

“When I finally got the hand controls in, it was like freedom,” Clayton said. “That’s the best way I can say it. It just feels like you are not confined. I can go anywhere I want to at this point. I can unload, offroad, anywhere I want to. It was a sense of freedom that was what allowed me to even push farther to go back to work or go to college. I can go to any point or anywhere I want to. I love my jeep. I could talk about it all day.”

The jeep was not the only thing in Clayton’s life that motivated her to carry on. Her support system and passion for the sport of basketball also played a huge part.

“I had a very good support system,” she said. “I never got down in the dumps. I was lucky in that sense to never really go into the depression state. I had friends and family that always kept me going and active.”

That support system has been crucial for Clayton and her family. In just a few years, it experienced calamities that can shake familial foundations.

In her sophomore year of high school, the Clayton family house in Horseshoe Bend, Ala., was destroyed by fire. They lived in a trailer as their new house was built.

A year after Clayton was paralyzed in the ATV accident, her younger brother Chase suffered a horrific freak accident. During a youth retreat in Tennessee, he was playing a game of pool with friends. Chase was accidentally knocked over and the pool cue went through his eye and into his brain. He had emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. He turned 16 during his lengthy hospital stay. Chase was transferred to the University of Alabama-Birmingham hospital where he eventually recovered.

“It was a scary time for all of us,” Clayton said. “Especially because my accident had just happened.”

As of today, Chase works with his father as a welder and still has 20/20 vision.

Those traumatic events are difficult for an adult, much less a teen. Clayton’s mother credits her keeping things together with her love, compassion, and support.

“Her compassionate side has been with her since she was much younger,” Christy Lee Clayton said. “She always wanted to help others who were not able to help themselves. After our house burned, she was the rock that held our family together. She handled things that I could not emotionally do at times. She assisted me with anything I needed when my then 95-year-old grandmother lived with us. She was a great tear valet, listener, and great advice giver. I always told her she seemed like she was a lost old soul."

Clayton’s first sport was softball, but when she entered high school, she decided to try basketball. She found a new love. She had instinctual skills that she utilized at point guard. In addition to running the team, she could also score from the low post and her favorite shooting spot was from the elbow.

“It was my second year of basketball when I really fell in love with it,” Clayton said. “My (first) love was softball and the more I got going with basketball it just got higher and higher. I just kept having that love and that passion for it.”

That passion was paused by her accident, but six months after being paralyzed Clayton found an alternative outlet. The father of her friend Kelsey Locke worked at Auburn University which had a men’s wheelchair basketball team. He helped put Clayton in contact with the team and she was invited to a to practice.

“They let me get in a chair and push around. I was hooked from that instant,” Clayton said.

The team invited her to walk on, becoming the first woman competing in the men’s division of college wheelchair basketball. At the time, Auburn was a Division-III program. While Clayton was there, Auburn moved up to Division I and hired Rob Taylor as its coach.

“It was one of those things that after my accident that really helped me overcome the changes of my life that dramatically happened in the snap of a finger,” Clayton said. “That, even more, drove me and was my safety net honestly - just having that outlet and getting affiliated with the team."

Clayton discovered her skills from able body basketball transferred to the wheelchair game. She could still bring the ball down, post up, beat somebody behind a pick, hit shots from the outside.

“It helps having that background knowledge of just basketball in general because it is the same concepts just a little bit different in wheelchair basketball,” she said. “I was able to adapt pretty well.”

Being the first woman to compete in the men’s division had some drawbacks. She was not immediately accepted by her male teammates. That didn’t prevent her from playing hard and well.

Christy-Lee Clayton has many reasons to be proud of her daughter. She thinks Ranley provides inspiration for girls, young women and anyone with disabilities. Being the only woman on an all-male team is another pride point.

“The day Ranley was born I was already proud of her because everyone was saying she was going to be a boy. Boy, were they wrong,” she said. “I was shocked at first that the men's team would even consider it. Then [I was] a little scared. ‘They are going to hurt my baby.’ She can handle it. She’s tough and that's what she does day in and day out, handles it.”

Clayton holds a different opinion.

“I did not really see it as an inspiration for others,” she said. “It was more of a coming together because when I first started with the guys, they would see me and leave me, we don’t need to worry about her. Then it was just like boom in your face, buckets, buckets, buckets. You have all the girls there saying ‘Yeah’ and they had my back. That was just one of the great things. Everybody always asks me why don’t you play on a women’s team. Honestly, I did not know about women’s (wheelchair) basketball until I was already too far into it.”

Eventually, her male teammates accepted her. Camaraderie of practices, joking in the weight room and karaoke sessions broke the ice. “We had country music, slower songs,” she recalled. “We were jamming and singing together. That was fun at Auburn.”

After four years, Clayton graduated from Auburn and decided to further her education and her basketball career. She enrolled at the University of Illinois and joined the wheelchair basketball team coached by Stephanie Wheeler.

Clayton had observed the Illinois team at tournaments and admired Wheeler’s coaching style.

“It just seemed like the right feeling,” Clayton said. “That intuition that this is what I need to do. There is no other option, I need to go.”

Women’s wheelchair games are more team-oriented, a fact that suited Clayton.

“It is a whole other aspect of basketball when you move to a women’s side,” she said. “It is a little bit different. It’s the same thing in men’s stand-up. Men and women are totally different and have different aspects of the game. The same thing transfers with wheelchair basketball as well.”

After Clayton chose Illinois to pursue her master's in recreation, sports, and tourism, she hopped in the Jeep and started her journey a 10-hour drive from Auburn to Champaign.

“Then I finally was so glad that I went with my gut feeling, this is where I need to go and this is where I fit in the most,” she said.

The team and Wheeler welcomed Clayton with open arms. During her long drive, she wondered what to expect, but she felt like she joined a family.

“It’s been the best,” Clayton said. “The girls are great. We connect well on and off the court. There is just a sense of togetherness. All together with the coach included. It’s great, I don't really know how to describe it. It is so family oriented. For me being able to move 10 hours from home and feel as comfortable as I did. I was not expecting that at all.”

This past season was a great experience for Clayton and her teammates. The season-long goal was winning a national championship. Practices five times a week and small group sessions two times a week intensified as the season progressed. Wheeler pushed her team to improve.

“She is amazing,” Clayton said of her coach. “She is a driver and a pusher. She wants the best for everyone. She wants to push you to lengths you are not used to being pushed in the sense you are going to gain the knowledge that you need to use to be your best and overall perform well as a team.”

The team’s preseason goal of winning a championship came agonizingly close to fruition. On March 19, Illinois, the No. 2 seed, lost in the title game on a buzzer-beater to top-seeded Alabama, 50-48. The Crimson Tide won its third consecutive national title and eighth overall.

Alabama had to contend and contain Clayton to earn its title. She was the Fighting Illini’s best player throughout and her play reflected her performance during the season. Clayton was second on the team in field goal accuracy (58.9 percent) and also had 92 rebounds.

This excellence did not go unnoticed by the NWBA. They just named Ranley a First Team All-American. That will surely lead to additional confidence as she heads into her final season for Illinois. She actually received another nice boost to her future prospects recently: an invitation to tryout for Team USA.

Other than being competitive, there is a compassionate side to Clayton. She goes out of her way to help and connect with others.

While living in Alabama, Clayton worked as a Physical Education teacher in an elementary school. Here she used her platform to be an advocate for people with disabilities and the education system.

“When I first came in, they all looked at me and I think they had this impression of what it was going to be like, but then after I left, they all really liked me and the different aspects that I brought,” Clayton said. “My biggest thing was getting other kids with disabilities or that are different in general more active, involved, and working with other people.

“Find your passion and find what you love. Put your time and effort into that and make it what you want it to be.”

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