The Paralympics could be an end in itself. Athletes with physical challenges competing against one another sends a strong message about the human spirit and overcoming obstacles. Goal achieved.
But MU Coach Ron Lykins, who will lead a team in the next Paralympics, also wants his players to win, both on the court and in life.
“I am helping the players gain life skills and prepare for their lives after basketball,” said Lykins, head coach of MU’s Tiger wheelchair basketball team.
A few months ago, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association announced that Lykins would coach the United States’ wheelchair basketball team in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Lykins hopes to improve on the third-place finish last September of the U.S. men’s team in the Paralympics in London.
This won’t be his first foray into Paralympic coaching. Lykins led the women’s wheelchair basketball team in 2000, 2004 and 2008, the past two times winning gold.
He began his coaching career as a volunteer for the wheelchair basketball team at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. After graduating with a bachelor’s in community recreation and a master’s in education, he spent 10 years coaching the wheelchair basketball team at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. He arrived at MU in February 2009.
For the 2009–10 MU wheelchair basketball season, the men’s team had a winning record for the first time in the program’s history. Since then, Lykins has led the Tigers to two Mizzou Wheelchair Basketball Classic championships and two-fifth place finishes in the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Classic.
Once a sports fan gets pass the spectacle of wheelchairs screeching across a basketball court, it’s easy to settle in and simply enjoying the players’ ball handling, team organization and hoop scores as though watching any other college-level basketball game. According to Lykins, training wheelchair athletes is similar to training able-bodied athletes.
“Successful wheelchair basketball players have a combination of physical skill, coordination and understanding of the game,” Lykins said. “The general rules and principles are very similar to those in able-bodied basketball, but we do emphasize chair skills, quickness and hand speed. The best athletes can read the floor and have great anticipation of what is to come.”
In London, the Paralympics received more than average media exposure thanks to the presence of Oscar Pistorius, a 26-year-old South African whose legs were amputated at the knee as an infant. His competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics was a global news event, and the interest carried over one month later when he won two golds and a silver in the Paralympic Games. Even though Pistorius’ world came apart in February when he was arrested on charges of murdering his girlfriend, the attention he brought to the Paralympics might roll over to 2016.
Lykins will remain the MU coach while recruiting and training the Paralympic team. Currently he and his assistants are viewing hundreds of player videos submitted by U.S. wheelchair basketball coaches. The staff will invite 30 to 50 players to tryouts in May to whittle the team down to 12.
“I want to find athletes who will adapt to our system and who will work hard to contribute to the team,” Lykins said. “I believe in great teams, and we will win by the players’ ability to work together as a team.”
To make it to the 2016 Paralympics, the team must qualify for the World Championships in 2014 by competing this year in a “zone qualifying” tournament at Mizzou. The team must finish in the top four to qualify for the World Championships in Goyang City, South Korea. To qualify for the Paralympics, the team needs to place in the top four at the 2015 ParaPan-American Games in Toronto.
Though it’s a good bet the U.S. team will make it to Rio, Lykins is cautious. “It’s all a process from start to finish,” he said. “Right now we can’t even begin to think about Rio.”
After 31 years of coaching wheelchair basketball teams, Lykins still gets excited before each season. “There is always something to learn and a new component to add to the teaching of the game,” he said.