Wisconsin-Whitewater's Mada McCabe Is Powerful In Battle
“I need to go get the doctor.”
Jody Hull’s nurse uttered those words while looking at the sonogram.
Not the words Hull anticipated hearing.
The doctor entered and uttered something else Hull did not anticipate.
Hull knew her child would have to become a fighter due to the spinal closure and severe mobility issues associated with the condition. So she named her baby girl Mada, which, in Gaelic, means “powerful in battle.”
The Battle Begins
Growing up, Mada McCabe never needed a wheelchair — she could walk mostly fine with leg braces.
Mada’s parents promoted physical activity from a young age, and her doctor concurred, specifically recommending swimming as a great exercise to keep pressure off her joints.
That advice came with an additional positive: Hull, at one point, held five school records while on the University of Connecticut’s swim team.
Mada jumped right in.
She strove to excel.
The strenuous workouts and practices became tiring. Yet she found it in her to keep pushing to become great — to become like her mom.
“She’s been my biggest inspiration,” Mada said.
Mada swam at Paralympic events. She competed against current Paralympic athletes. She even finished runner-up at Nationals in Colorado Springs in seventh grade.
But with divorced parents, she rarely attended practice while under the custody of her father, Bill McCabe.
She then felt lost. Unmotivated.
However, Mada had an even bigger issue concerning her father: his drinking.
“I just would keep questioning him, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?’ Because he wasn't getting stuff done,” Mada said.
She felt compelled to care for him and her younger sister Fionnuala — Fionn, as she’s known.
"I had to make sure my sister was getting her homework done. I would make sure my sister was okay and in bed at a good time. With my dad, I constantly was in his room or wherever he was making sure that he was okay.”
Mada tried to keep her grades up. And get around the school halls with leg braces. And, like Dory, just keep swimming.
While attempting to balance all of this, Mada still found time to speak about her disability to the ninth graders her mother taught in Fairfax, Virginia. One time, a student asked Mada if she could be born again with or without a disability, what she would choose.
“I have made more change, I think, with a disability than I would without my disability,” Hull, recounting Mada’s response, said.
Mada's public speaking domain expanded far beyond the classroom . . .when she was 10 years old.
Mada’s stepmother, Christine, invited her to Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. And she worked at a pretty special place: The White House. She told Mada, then a fifth grader, if she wrote a speech, there could be a possibility — a very small one — she could give it during the event.
Mada immediately put pen to paper.
She looked at her draft; not good enough.
Another draft. Still not there.
Final draft — she hoped it had a chance.
Unfortunately, she learned over 200 others had taken the same chance.
But only one would prove powerful in battle.
Mada had not only been selected to give her speech, but better still — she got to meet and introduce First Lady Michelle Obama.
“[People] think certain things about people with disabilities that aren't true,” Mada said, summarizing her White House speech. “Or I've had people in my life that have come up to my mom, and have asked my mom questions about me when I'm right there. And they think that I have some type of cognitive disability because I have a physical one and I'm not able to speak for myself.”
Although she empowered others, Mada still felt lost within herself.
Swimming approached a point where, because she missed so many practices, she felt even more unmotivated and really did not grow “mentally, emotionally and physically.”
In addition, Mada thought the sport was too “individualized." And when she went home to only one parent, she yearned for something more familial than what she had with swimming.
She began to strongly consider moving on. If the enjoyment had ceased, maybe the time had come.
But Mom loved swimming, and it really kept pressure off the joints.
“I was struggling with where I was as an athlete,” Mada said.
She determined that where she was, wasn’t where she wanted to be - maybe.
“I didn't know whether I had made the right decision to quit swimming,” Mada said.
If not swimming, then what?
Beginner’s Guide to Hoops
In middle school, Mada attended one of Fionn’s basketball practices. On a different court, she noticed the Fairfax Falcons –– a team of wheelchair basketball players. The coach, Eric Rode, asked Mada whether she wanted to play.
She tried it out, but struggled early.
Mada worked hard to adapt to this new sport that she never thought she’d play. She didn’t stand out as a team player and envied her sister for being selfless on the court.
She also faced another big challenge early in her basketball career. Not a lot of youth athletes played wheelchair basketball in the Fairfax area, so the Falcons often scrimmaged adult recreational teams. One practice, none of Mada’s shots fell and the other team began making snarky comments.
“They were almost taking it easy on me,” Mada said. “And I think that made me more mad than if they would have been going hard on me and pushing me.”
Coach substituted her off.
She rolled to the bench and took a breath. Didn’t help.
Tears streamed down her face.
Mada looked to her more experienced teammates for advice.
“If they would miss or they would get a shot, they wouldn't make a big reaction,” Mada said. “If they got a shot, they would just keep to themselves and go on to the next play.”
Although still a seventh grader and not knowing what would happen next, she did know one thing: basketball would remain in her future.
And that required a future of hard work.
About mid-way through her first season, Mada became a key part of the team.
Her second season, Daniel McCoy, who later won a Paralympic gold medal in sled hockey, became her coach.
He and Mada led the team all the way to Nationals.
Third season - Nationals once again.
Mada’s future of hard work had become a future that looked very bright.
But McCoy left. And the team was left in shock.
The Falcons could outpace any team on the East Coast because of their work ethic.
“Out-pushing everybody each day and not treating it as if it was a competition with everybody on our team, but a competition within ourselves to push past to pass the point, you have every practice to be able to, kind of, improve on your skills,” Mada said. “And we were really pushing hard that year.”
But still, no McCoy. It seemed the Falcons had to fly higher for any hope of a storybook ending.
New head coach Melissa Buckles required countless hours of effort. They worked on five-man weaves 20-30 minutes every practice, which helped them with ball security and making layups.
Regular season arrived – a grueling one.
Though Mada dominated the paint, she still needed to expand her game beyond layups toward more midrange shots.
More practice, more effort –– by Mada and, in turn, the entire squad.
As Mada selflessly drove herself to become better for the team she also became the teammate that the others emulated.
Result: the opportunity to compete in the East Coast Conference Championship in January 2020.
The team arrived with nerves rattling.
The games started, the nerves never subsided, yet the wins came - all the way to the championship game.
Though the team played great defense, they needed offense. They needed a midrange game.
Never Mada’s forte.
But it was battle time. Time for the power.
Mada hit a shot. Then another. And another.
Victory - by more than 20 points.
“After we won that game, I just was bawling,” Mada said. “And I was in tears, and my whole team was in tears, but like, we never thought we would get [to Nationals].”
She was correct there.
As the team awaited the tournament in March 2020, something unexpected sprung upon them: the COVID-19 pandemic. And that meant no Nationals.
“We knew that we could be a good team if we put in the effort,” Mada said. “And we did and it was just gut-wrenching that we weren't able to go to Nationals because I feel like we could have gotten the National Championship that year.”
In addition to dealing with the sadness of no Nationals, Mada had another stressor: trying to decide whether to pursue basketball in college.
Mada didn’t play much at all during the pandemic, “getting in once every two weeks, if that.”
“I just wasn't very active at the time and it kind of sent me into a really depressed place because I was having a lot of question marks at the time about if I wanted to go to community college, if I wanted to go play basketball at a university, if I was going to stay in basketball,” Mada said.
One person more than anyone assisted Mada with this difficult decision: her father.
Much confusion exists around the disease of alcoholism. While it weakens, it does not evidence weakness. While it impedes thinking, it does not suggest stupidity. Mada’s father has a degree from Harvard Law School. Hard to come up with a more impressive accomplishment.
As he made strides to overcome his illness, he managed to also prioritize advising his daughter during this extremely important period in her life
Not only did Bill graduate from an elite institution, but he later left the practice of law and became a teacher. He clearly valued education and impressed that on Mada.
He also recognized his daughter’s passion and talent for basketball. So he strongly encouraged her to continue to play.
But Mada struggled with envisioning herself in college and playing wheelchair basketball.
Her dad believed she could do it - and he advised she should do it.
Decision: Continue to push herself in order to play at that next level.
Huge thanks, Dad.
Next Big Decision
This did leave another question. Where?
Mada first reached out to coaches Christina Schwab at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Stephanie Wheeler at the University of Illinois.
“I was able to talk to these coaches and I think that, kind of, lit a fire underneath me that I wanted to be able to get better, so I needed to start doing something as far as getting active. In that, kind of, depression I needed to start doing something to be able to further my career in basketball and be able to be ready for college when it got to that time.”
The two coaches also connected with Buckles about Mada and her skill set.
Schwab said that when recruiting she is “more worried about what kind of” person might be joining her team, than the player’s abilities.
Schwab clearly liked Mada’s personality from their interview and extended an offer.
Wheeler did as well.
Mada now had another decision. She had the opportunity to play under a highly respected coach regardless of her choice.
Thanks to her father’s help, she made her choice soon after seeing both schools in person.
When Mada visited Illinois — during the peak of the pandemic — she unfortunately but understandably never got a chance to meet Wheeler in person.
At Whitewater, however, she did manage to get to meet Schwab, who also lives with spina bifida.
"[Christina] made me feel comfortable,” Mada said.
But she added, “I wasn't 100% comfortable leaving my family so far away.”
Both schools were far from home.
Illinois being 100 miles closer definitely appealed to Mada.
Her parents made clear they would support her decision to go anywhere if she wanted to pursue a future in basketball.
So, on the last day of her visit, she told her father she had made up her mind, “100% sure.”
The 800 miles from her home to Whitewater just did not matter. She had decided to become a Warhawk.
“Christina is amazing, and she tells me a lot that I'm a mini her,” Mada said. “Me and her are very close.”
Familial Quest Continues
When Mada arrived in Whitewater, Schwab immediately knew she would fit with the program because of her outgoing personality.
“Right off the bat, [she] just got along with everybody, and I could tell that she was going to be a winner,” Schwab said. “She was a little intimidated by some of our older women that we had on the team, but she also had these attributes that I can tell just needed to be a little bit cultivated.”
But Mada had never been this far from home and often found herself “crying on the phone” to her parents.
“I was very homesick. And I didn't know if I had made the right decision just because I was very lonely and sad internally,” Mada said.
She often tried to wipe away those tears. But she often failed.
She should’ve stayed home, attended community college.
Time to cut the losses and head back to Virginia, be with her family. An unquestionably reasonable decision.
But not for Ms. Powerful In Battle.
“What made me stay was just having teammates that I could go to and talk about, like, ‘Hey, I'm having this difficult time and I'm alone. And I don't know what to do.’”
She spent more time with teammates to distract herself, which certainly helped. She then “built a family” away from home.
On the floor, Mada knew she wouldn’t be handed minutes; she would have to earn them. Schwab recognized Mada wanted to improve because she would learn new techniques and implement them quickly. She especially wanted Mada to be more vocal.
Creating good chemistry with her teammates off the court transferred directly to her play style, and Schwab expressed her excitement for Mada.
“I see her being vocal with her teammates, and it makes me really, really proud because I know that she's got high aspirations,” Schwab said.
Mada received All-Rookie honors after her freshman season — it seemed she had a clear future at Whitewater.
Until an unfathomable change occurred.
Christina Schwab stepped down as head coach of the program.
Mada had a difficult time when Schwab announced her resignation because of their strong relationship.
She had been homesick. Wanted to be back with her family. Now the one person who brought her in stepped down.
Was there really a reason to stay at Whitewater?
“That one was hard for me too because we did create this relationship that was almost mother-daughter like,” Schwab said. “And, you know, I would have supported her in any decision that she decided to make.”
No more Coach Schwab. One of the main reasons Mada went to Whitewater, gone.
She also still had great teammates. And they had become family.
She knew everyone on the team felt just as close to Christina, too, and they were able to come together during a difficult time.
“I should be grateful for my team and be there for my team. . . . I wanted to be there for my roommate and I wanted to be the best support system that I could have for them,” Mada said.
Was there anyone who could replace a hall of famer like Schwab?
The answer lay within the program, in current head coach Jake Shafer, a member of the 2021-22 Warhawk Men’s Wheelchair squad.
Despite a big change, the Warhawks flocked together - including Mada who has greatly appreciated Shafer's guidance.
The Warhawks had a young squad this season and stuck together week by week.
Yet week by week they couldn’t pick up a win.
And freshman Kylee Koenig couldn't buy a basket - not one. The piling up of losses did not give her much confidence.
During the Big Cheese Tournament on Feb. 18, Kylee had the ball in her hands.
She shoots, she scores!
Mada immediately embraced her.
“This was special to me because it showed that Mada really cares about everyone’s individual wins, and she loves to see her teammates continue to get better,” Koenig said.
Koenig went on to make All-Rookie team and recognized Mada’s commitment to her fellow Warhawks, as well as her hard work and resilience.
“Mada is a leader on our team, always pushing everyone to do their best and keep getting better,” Koenig said. “Mada is someone that I look up to and I would like to follow in her footsteps in the coming years. I admire how she works to lift up those around her and the amount of work she puts in to continue growing her skills.”
Unfortunately, that first bucket by Kylee did not lead to a win.
So they practiced even harder for the next game . . . and lost again.
And again. And again.
Final game comes. Last chance to prevent a winless season. A must win.
And they lost.
“I don't mind losses, as long as we're improving,” Mada said.
Schwab emphasized Mada’s maturity in handling losses and growing as a leader.
“She's going to be one of those leaders that brings in women to the program because people are going to want to play with her because of her personality and who she is and how hard she works,” Schwab said.
Mada’s next goal comes with playing for Schwab again on Team USA. Schwab, a three-time Paralympic gold-medalist, knows Mada can achieve that goal but has work to do.
“Mada and I have a relationship too where we’re honest with each other,” Schwab said. “You have to do this or you may not get a chance to go. So, for example, she applied to try out for the senior national team, and I'm the senior national team coach, and she didn't get an invite to try out. And so we've talked about that.”
Mada knows she has to compete against better and more aggressive players. But she also knows what to do to get better because of this candid relationship with Schwab.
Hull and Schwab both expressed their pride for Mada in how far she has come as a player and as a person.
“We all have to go through things off the court, and it makes us who we are,” Schwab said. “And especially, it can translate to who we are on the court. And I think that it's made her resilient. I think it makes her empathetic to other people and what they're going through, so it makes her a really good teammate.”
Mada has a stellar support system as she continues to be powerful in battle.
But the battles are not just for her. They are for her mom. For her dad. For her siblings. For Coach Schwab. For her team.
For her family.
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