The Sport That Saved EWU's Jackson Atwood
Jackson Atwood wanted accent colors.
And he wanted them on his wheelchair.
The exact desire: a blue frame with purple accents.
This seventh-grader just had another surgery on his left leg and he felt stuck with the “really crummy” chair that he used prior to the operation. His compassionate mom, Morgen Larsen, agreed, and scheduled a professional fitting for a new one.
One problem — he couldn’t have the colors.
They belonged exclusively to athletes of ParaSport Spokane, an organization that focuses on adaptive sports.
Atwood previously had big athletic aspirations, but no more.
Teresa Skinner, the ParaSport wheelchair basketball and track coach, decided to cut a deal with him anyway.
If he attended a wheelchair basketball practice, those blue and purple colors were his.
He just had to throw around some balls, shoot some hoops and maybe meet some friends.
Come on Jackson, take a shot.
Not Knowing Himself
Atwood has a birth defect called proximal femoral focal discrepancy with minor spina bifida, meaning an upper part of the femur bone is significantly stunted and the ball on his hip joint didn’t develop.
By age four, his femur grew a mere two inches long. Around age five, he had surgery which included knee fusion, bone graft and the loss of his left foot. Pretty much his left knee and everything below got amputated.
But Atwood always wanted to be an athlete. At age eight, his mother put him into organized sports for the first time. Every time he tried a new sport, he loved it.
After receiving his prosthetic. Atwood first played soccer and swam. He loved these sports but he knew that because of his physical structure, he wasn’t “good enough to stick around with [able-bodied athletes].”
Physical problems led to mental problems. Since he did not think he could keep up, he doubted himself.
Despite the low morale he kept looking for a way to achieve his dream of becoming an athlete.
And then - things got worse.
Seventh grade happened.
Everyone has problems in middle school. Not everyone has growth plate surgery.
In seventh grade, Atwood had surgery on his “little leg”, the amputated one, to prevent additional length growth.
He had to use his “crummy” wheelchair all hours of the day while recovering instead of wearing his prosthetic.
That brought on additional and unanticipated problems.
“He would come home from school each day and tell me that the way his friends were treating him made him feel more disabled than ever before,” his mom said. “Specifically, he mentioned that his friends were pushing him around campus, offering to carry his books and backpack, and generally just trying to help him out. This extra attention was unsolicited and perceived by Jackson as negative. It really sent him into a depressive state.”
“Sad” and “lost” described him. When it came to sports, Atwood doubted himself, and his self-esteem dwindled. He already had confidence issues before the second surgery.
Atwood hit his “low moment.”
“I just wanted to be athletic, but I just always thought I couldn't,” Atwood said. “There's nothing left for me, and just nothing left when it comes to just competing in sports.”
ParaSport: Finding That Athlete Inside
Atwood said he tried wheelchair basketball a few times elementary school. He never stuck with it, made excuses, and didn’t have the strength to get the ball in the basket.
When seventh-grade Atwood showed up to Skinner’s practice he slid right into the wheelchair basketball chair — different from a regular wheelchair with wheels inclined inwardly.
Someone handed him a ball.
Then came the ultimate test — could he make a basket this time around? Atwood had his doubts as he sat in that “crummy” chair.
One arm holding the ball in place.
The other arching backward with an angle.
An umph combining with a burst of strength.
The ball floating in the air.
Enhanced by a blue framed chair with purple accents.
According to Atwood, words do not exist that could overstate that shot’s importance to his life.
“So the first basket was a big moment. I was so happy and relieved. I can actually do this! This is something I can continue with my life!”
From there, everything clicked. He saw a future, a way to become an athlete. Before ParaSport, that dream seemed gone. When he hit that basket, it came back.
“Before I wanted to be athletic, but I didn't feel like I was because I was comparing myself to the able-bodied kids. I wanted to give up athletics in general. . . . I can actually compete with [ParaSport athletes at] the same level!”
ParaSport felt like a community. Atwood connected with people who had challenges like his who had a passion for sports, just like him.
So the story is finished, right?
Well, not quite.
Teamwork And Trust
Though ParaSport also exposed him to track, hopes formed of being an actual wheelchair basketball player. So he got even stronger. And he became faster. Boy did he get fast. Thank you track.
In 2017, he was fourth in the 1500m at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships. In 2019, he won gold at the Junior World Para Athletic Track & Field Championships in the 100m, 400m and 800m. So, obviously, speed wasn’t a weak point.
He realized he needed something else. He needed the trust required to play on a team.
“You're passing the ball, can you trust them for actually [scoring] that ball?” Atwood said.
Could he? Could he trust his teammates, and could they trust him? He didn’t know trust with sports. He didn’t have to. Trusting teammates isn’t all that important to success with track. Not a whole lot of trust needed to win the 100 yard dash. How could he now make himself into a trusting teammate?
He started with just one teammate, Mike Lucas.
When the team went away, they were always roommates. They eventually became friends outside of practice. And then it happened. They trusted each other.
“If you understand that certain [person], then you're able to kind of flow like a river, like really just nice and easy, in one direction. I never kind of realized that beforehand,” Atwood said.
He then had to try to to the same thing with the rest of his wheelchair basketball team.
“I definitely grew friendships within the team,” Atwood said. “Everybody has kind of a different skill level. And being able to acknowledge that skill level and to kind of work with them on the court can really help.”
With much effort Atwood became not only trusting but trusted.
So he had strength, speed and teamwork.
Mission accomplished, right?
The Search For Confidence
Atwood had a huge goal for his high school athletic career, it just didn’t involve basketball.
He wanted to make the U.S. Paralympic team in 2021 for wheelchair track. Early mornings, late nights. Atwood trained and trained and trained.
Simultaneously, he went to basketball practice a couple of times a week. His strength improved and his chemistry with his teammates grew every day. They played in tournaments via ParaSport.
He liked it but what Atwood wanted more was the Paralympics. He wanted to, he had to, make the team. Even when COVID-19 spread, he stayed focused.
“I trained very hard to make it to the Paralympics,” Atwood said.
But he didn’t.
In the midst of COVID-19, Atwood didn’t have a Paralympic spot and didn’t know his next move
What was he going to do? What other options did he have to be the athlete that he dreamed of? He looked deep down inside but he didn’t know the answer.
Maybe he could find it in his driveway, for there sat a hoop and a ball.
Atwood decided to give basketball a try. A real try and not just playing with friends a couple of times a week.
Despite some success in high school, he didn’t fully believe in himself as a basketball player. But he committed to hard work with the insatiable need to still be an athlete.
His mom recalled witnessing him taking shots for hours. Sometimes heed shoot with emotion involved, other times not. He had to learn more about himself as a basketball player.
So after all of that time and all of that effort, the answer Atwood sought somehow someway - remained unanswered.
“I didn't realize I was like a good player. Like ever,” Atwood said.
Then things, somehow someway - got worse.
COVID restrictions allowed Atwood’s basketball team his senior year of high school to play in only one tournament.
And, in that one and only tournament, he severely injured his shoulder. A posterior labral tear that required yet another surgery.
A final sign that basketball wasn’t meant for him.
That is had it not, once again, been for ParaSport Spokane.
There he met Eastern Washington University’s wheelchair basketball coach, David Evjen. The coach worked with him, saw the work ethic and the desire to be an athlete.
So he recruited Atwood to be a member of EWU’s team.
EWU had special meaning to Atwood well before that.
His grandfather was a professor at EWU. His mom teaches now online as an alumna and his father graduated from there too. He decided to follow in their footsteps.
He also liked that the community at EWU is much akin to that at ParaSport Spokane - everyone together, and happy.
“Just going to these events, meeting new people, and growing like a strong community within college was really great,” Atwood said. “I was able to just hang out with people and study with them. And just all that kind of stuff. So I really belonged there.”
But the credit for the main reason he chose EWU goes to Evjen.
“He is just like a really great guy. And I could tell that he will be a really great coach. And so that was a really big reason for me being a part of Eastern because it was easy. He was just like, hey, you can go to Eastern. And that was kind of my decision."
Ahh, happy ending.
Not quite. A problem still existed. Atwood still did not believe in himself.
“I felt like [what] I was good at was just being able to be really fast and defend people,” Atwood said. “But when it came to my ball skills, it wasn't as good.”
When he got back on the court after recovering from the surgery, the EWU Eagles needed him. The team was dwindling because of academic reasons. When he did return, he didn’t have time to be in his head.
He had to be good because he had to play.
“The first year of college ball we started dropping numbers, and I would play more,” Atwood said.
The more time he saw on the court, the better his ball skills became. And the more shots he took, the more confident he felt.
“When [Atwood] joined our squad, all I knew for sure was that his instincts and athleticism would help us greatly on the court,” Evjen said. “The more skills we worked on and responsibility we gave to him, the more he rose to the occasion.”
At Eastern Washington, Atwood knows he is good. He knows he is an athlete.
And he doesn’t want his story to end there.
Photo and cover photo by Chris Thompson
The Full Circle Moment To Come
In seventh grade, he was lost. Teresa Skinner, the coach and occupational therapist at ParaSport, found him. And she set him on the path to achieving his abandoned goal of becoming an athlete. Now, it is his turn.
He has enrolled in EWU’s occupational therapy program with a goal after graduation of helping children, with physical issues like his, find the athlete within themselves. Atwood envisions teaching skills — teamwork and trust — along with the qualities that made him find and understand himself.
“[Teresa Skinner] kind of inspired me. There are kids out there that still don't know about adaptive sports. There are kids out there that, like me, didn't know where to go. I want them to be a part of the community. Like really early on in life, so they can have these experiences that I have.”
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