Mizzou's Koda Inman-Ahlstrom Is Far From Frail
The future for Koda Inman-Ahlstrom following a 2007 car crash at age 7, that put him and his cousin Isaiah in comas, looked bleak. The accident fractured the backs of both boys. According to doctors “gone” was the incredibly athletic and competitive Koda who enjoyed playing any and every sport.
Spoiler alert: they were wrong.
Inman-Ahlstrom will soon enter his third full season on the men’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Missouri. There he has carved out a legacy which includes community engagement that positively impacts many young players.
He now thrives both on and off the court, despite being told he was going to be weak, frail and need help to do almost everything for the rest of his life.
"Funny enough I played everything except basketball before my injury," Inman-Ahlstrom recalled.
"I was playing a lot of soccer, a lot baseball, flag football, rugby. I was just learning how to swim really well and roller-skate. I was pretty athletic before. It was kind of a by-product of my parents urging me to do so. My dad was always athletic and I’d practice soccer with him all the time."
And skateboard. Koda's dad always loved to skateboard. Well maybe not always. One day the duo went to a skate park and Dad took a tumble.
"His foot was totally destroyed. It was so gnarly. I was like, 'Wow this is crazy!"
Things then got a little crazier on the way to the hospital. About 10 years before any of his friends, little Koda got some driving experience.
"He worked the gas. We made it eventually."
Most amazingly, during his father's recovery, Inman-Ahlstrom continued to play soccer, and Dad continued to help - despite a metal plate and 5 screws in his ankle.
Two Unconquerable Cousins
A year or two later it was Koda in the hospital. Though he woke up, everyone continued to believe he would be mute.
He recalled laying in bed watching TV everyday and not carrying about anything. And one day someone stood in front of him.
"I said something like, 'Hey, will you get out of the way. I'm trying to watch Sponge Bob.' And they were like, 'Oh my God, he can speak!'"
Shortly thereafter, Isaiah moved to California to recover and be closer to Koda. From there, the cousins who were already close became inseparable. They used each other, figuring out how to heal and navigate their new normal while leaning on each other for support.
Still, with all the negative talk and whispers of a limited future, morale was never shaken as Koda and Isaiah knew they always had each other.
“We were never like depressed or sad and I think that’s because we were able to feed off each other’s curiosity and positivity and how we can figure things out together. Having him next to me every step of the way was one of the best things that could have happened for me.” Inman-Ahlstrom said.
An Important Introduction
The boys were both introduced to a support system that taught them how to be strong and independent through the one thing they loved pre-and post-accident: sports.
“They started showing us a bunch of different sports and different ways to remain active, which is really an important part of being in a wheelchair. So that's kind of where we got a glimpse of wheelchair basketball, it was cool to be able to play and play together,” Inman-Alstrom said.
That glimpse was provided by the Bay Area Outreach Program. BORP, which started in 1976, aims to “improve the health, independence and social integration of children, youth and adults with physical disabilities and visual impairments through sports, fitness, and recreation programs.”
With his cousin by his side and on the court, Koda began to pick up the pieces and retain that love for sports and competition, while also developing as a young man.
The program reinforced to Koda his strength despite his condition, something his parents stressed to him every day.
“The second he first woke up, we made it clear to Koda that it was still his life to live and that he could still accomplish any goal he wanted to. Everyone at BORP told him the same things. It’s a really amazing program,” said Koda’s mother, Kaila Inman.
The moment he started playing wheelchair basketball, Koda was hooked. At BORP an already competitive Koda focused his attention and developed strength and confidence not just in athletics, but in life and in himself.
“I started playing the year of my injury, just a few months after we were fully recuperated. They had a prep program, a varsity program, they had an adult program, and they did a bunch of other different adaptive sports. So, I started playing prep, but I got really into it.”
New Environment, New Expectations
From day one on the court with the Bay Cruisers, Koda knew he had to grow up fast if he wanted to play. There are many other players, disabled or in a wheelchair, and no one was going to have pity on him and spoon-feed him success. It was something new for Koda.
“I’m getting used to all these people with disabilities and all these people who don't make excuses for themselves and stuff. Really, it was almost like a culture shock, just seeing a lot of really independent people in wheelchairs. I was just excited to be playing a sport again and being around people who didn't treat me like I was frail or being super careful around me.”
As Koda continued playing, the tough love, grit and grind culture continued. If he got hit in the face with a ball during the game, he needed to shake it off and continue playing.
If a player happened to elbow him in the face during the game fighting for a rebound, a quick timeout was taken to check for blood, but nothing more.
The adjustment was hard for Koda, but even harder for Kaila as during games and practices, the “momma bear” instincts would sometimes take over.
“I remember having a game where like, I get hit in the head with a ball and fall over. And then my mom came running out on the court, and she's checking me and she's picking me up and then they announce, 'Ma'am, please get off the court,'" Koda recalled with a grin.
Koda's dad admitted to experiencing difficulties with the path to Koda's independence as well.
"When Koda was paralyzed and almost died . . . I slept in the same bed with him for one year and had my hand on his heart all night to make sure he was okay. I babied him and let him be wild and out of control cause I felt sorry for him," Aric Ahlstrom said.
Mr. Ahlstrom then learned from his son's coaches that if he "felt sorry for Koda then Koda will feel sorry for himself his whole life and will never reach his fullest potential."
"It was one of the hardest things I’ve done but I had to stay in the background and let Koda learn how to accomplish this with my guidance," Aric Ahlstrom said.
As Koda grew in the sport, individual success followed. With the Junior Road Warriors (an affiliate of the Golden State Warriors), Koda traveled and competed in national tournaments, winning championships and MVP awards. He simultaneously continued to gain exposure and, more importantly, find a community for himself and his family.
“It was comforting to see other families and the way they supported their children, it felt normal to not be the only parent walking in with wheelchair supplies or a first aid kit. Everyone was just there to support the kids no matter what team they played for,” Ms. Inman said.
The Pressure Creates A Diamond
In an unlikely turn, the more intense wheelchair basketball and his coaches got, the better it was for Koda’s development. In a world where someone would normally see him roll up in his wheelchair and immediately take pity upon him, it was different with wheelchair basketball. He was challenged and empowered to be self-sufficient, independent and mentally tough.
“Playing basketball, falling flat on my face just being expected to get right back up and keep playing, that fired me up every time.”
That sense of independence and toughness molded Koda as he grew up and faced newer challenges. After a stellar amateur career which included championships, MVP awards and attention from college programs, Koda’s career came to a halt.
New Challenges, Same Koda
As Koda grew older, more injuries and new challenges presented themselves. Koda was diagnosed with a stage 4 ulcer on his right ischium that became infected. After years of long recovery from the initial accident, Koda would need to have not one, but two flap surgeries.
The recovery would force Koda to miss both his junior and senior seasons at New Technology High School in Napa California. It was during his time away, that the lessons he learned at BORP and the strength that was instilled in him by his parents and cousin came into play. Once again Koda was forced to overcome despite hearing what wasn’t possible.
“He just handled everything so well, missing all that time doing something you love would have broken someone else, but not my Koda,” Ms. Inman said.
As his parents told him when he first woke up from that coma in 2007, he could achieve any goal he wanted to, and Koda did just that.
One of his biggest goals was to play basketball in college, and missing time in high school never deterred Koda. Thanks to his relationship with Missouri head coach Ron Lykins, he still earned the opportunity to attend the University of Missouri and join the team.
“We saw him at our summer camps, and we were impressed not just with him as a player, but how he carried himself. He was always a smart, disciplined young man and we knew right away we needed him in our program,” said Missouri head coach Ron Lykins.
Early in his career at Mizzou, Koda faced newer challenges. A two-year layoff before jumping into college athletics is a tall task for any athlete of any sport, and Koda was no different.
“You kind of go from a group of kids who maybe one or two can catch and pass, maybe one or two can shoot on your team, maybe one or two can set picks for you. And you jump on to a college team where everyone is an excellent passer shooter, picker, and the intensity is just ramped up to like 1000.”
Just like at BORP, the intensity is where Koda thrived, he remembered the lessons he learned back when he was younger: he was not some frail, hopeless kid in a wheelchair. He was strong, he was independent, and he was good enough to play at this level.
“It felt like I made it big, I always wanted this opportunity. It felt good to be back competing at a high level.”
Coach Lykins played a big part, the former wheelchair basketball USA National Team head coach is similar to other coaches Koda has had in the past: tough, empowering and ready to challenge his players to be independent and strong.
“He’s a great coach, old fashioned for sure which is okay with me. He gets to know you and understand your health and your limitations, but he doesn't let any of that stuff kind of like make him treat you differently.”
With the fire inside him re-lit, Koda bounced back and played well for Mizzou, not only was he finding his stride on the court, but off the court as a leader, connecting with teammates and finding his purpose in the community.
“He really grew up from being one of the shy kids to becoming a leader both on and off the court. It was really cool to see him grow and now have such an impact on others,” said former teammate Luke Hutchinson.
Another former teammate, Eric Rodriguez said, "Koda is a hard working individual that has put a ton of time and sweat on the court. He always is willing to go above and beyond to improve his game."
An important aspect of Koda’s emerging leadership is his new role helping teach the newer generation not just the fundamentals of the game, but more importantly the fundamentals of life.
As “Coach Koda” he has been able to provide younger wheelchair basketball players that same “tough love” and empowerment he got from his coaches at BORP and Lykins at Mizzou. Koda volunteers and works with younger players often, providing guidance that empowers his players to also be the best people they can be.
“The way I was coached growing up is a big part of how I coach now, I want independence to be kind of the driving factor behind what I do as a coach. I truly want to helping kids be as independent as they can.”
His fellow teammates and coaches noticed the special style. With Koda merging his laid back, empowering personality with some old school tough love tricks he learned from Lykins, he instantly made an impact as a coach.
“He’s great with the kids because like coach [Lykins] he’s able to isolate what each kid does well and help them master that, while at the same time identify what they might not do as well and motivate them to do better,” said former teammate Zach Steger.
Paying It Forward
With the season and graduation both soon approaching, Koda looks to use a new method to empower and teach kids they are not weak or frail: music.
He credits his love for music and all forms of art to his mom - a highly respected sculptor and
master of recycled art in Napa Valley.
"She makes really cool stuff. She would take repurposed bowling balls and old fans and make wings out of them and make this awesome giant lady bug dragon fly thing. And people in Napa lose their minds. You can drive through Napa and it’s cool to see her impact on the community."
No word, however, on how Mom feels about what her son claims as his favorite piece of "art": Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.
“I like to use music as a personal decompressor and a personal tool that I can use to just vibe, and I find it easy to connect with people through music. And I'd like to apply that to younger kids with mental disabilities or physical disabilities, or kids recovering from surgeries in the hospital.”
Koda, studies both psychology and music. He plans to use both and practice music therapy for kids with disabilities. A key component to his style of therapy will be the way he uses his personal experiences to better connect and support his students.
“I know that I can connect with disabled children in ways that others can’t because I’ve been there, I know what they’re going through, and I share their emotions,” Koda said.
For those who know Koda, his plans surprise no one. They not only can see Koda in this field, but excelling as only he could.
According to Coach Lykins, "Koda sees the bigger picture, he realizes that it is about more than just the game and more than himself. That is what makes him special."
“He’s always had a knack for helping those in need and supporting them throughout their journey, I know one day he’ll have a huge impact,” Steger said.
Koda knows the power of words and the words that the doctors and naysayers told him when he first got injured have always stuck with him.
“I’ve been working my whole life so I don’t end up like how they said I would, I know I’m better than that.”
Koda was able to combat those words thanks to his support system and his community. The guidance from his parents, teammates and coaches has empowered him to grow and develop the confidence, independence and mental toughness despite his condition.
With Koda’s guidance, the next generation will follow his lead and become fearless, tough and inspired to do great things. And much like Koda, they will be far from frail too.
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