Rebel Wheelers, a sports and social programme for children with physical disability, may just unearth the Paralympians of the future. Áilín Quinlan reports
JACK Finn's first trip to the Rebel Wheelers was not a success. The nine-year-old sat in the corner, scowling and grimly refusing to engage with the other children who whizzed around the sports hall.
But just a few sessions later, he was an acknowledged member of the gang and a crucial member of the Rebel Wheelers basketball team.
Now 11, Jack loves the Rebel Wheelers, a volunteer organisation founded and run by parents to offer a wide-ranging programme of sports, fun and social interaction for children with a physical disability.
The youngster rarely misses the Saturday morning sports session at the Cope Centre in Montenotte, Cork – and he absolutely lives for the Monday night basketball training.
"I like the game because it's really fast and I think I'm good at it – I really like scoring points! I'll keep playing basketball," says the Kilkully, Co Cork, boy, who has travelled all over the country with his team in the last two years.
"I've been to Dublin, Limerick, Belfast, Galway and Kerry. We're a good team. We win a lot of the matches," he says.
Jack, the youngest of a family of four, has bilateral tibial aplasia, which means he was born without knees and had to have his lower legs amputated in order to walk with prosthetics.
"He has a great bunch of friends and he really loves the physicality of the basketball," reports mum Fiona, who says he's very engaged with all the Wheeler activities.
"He goes to the regular session on Saturdays, to the Monday basketball training session, and on Wednesday nights he goes to table tennis."
The great thing about the Wheelers, she says, is that the group also encourages able-bodied siblings to get involved – so Jack's 12-year-old sister Molly has also joined the Wheelers' basketball team.
"The Rebel Wheelers is great for parents too because you get to meet other parents," says Fiona.
"We love going up with him on a Saturday morning, and I enjoy the chance to talk to other parents of children with disability."
The team is made up of about 10-15 kids who play all the sports – but who have a special affinity for basketball, explains Jerry O'Regan, PRO and secretary of the Rebel Wheelers.
They're very pleased with their basketballers – the team has been notching up a lot of wins lately.
In recent times, says Mr O'Regan proudly, they've been winning nearly all their games.
Not only that – they recently got a visit from the SuperLeague Cup champions, Bord Gais Neptune, who were very impressed by the children's skill.
"We got them to sit in wheelchairs and play a match against the Rebel Wheelers – they were taken aback by the speed of the children and the skill with which they played," reports Mr O'Regan.
Rebel Wheelers play a wide variety of sports – as well as wheelchair basketball, they do wheelchair hurling, wheelchair rugby, sit-volleyball, hand-cycling, swimming, karate and athletics to name but a few – but the Wheelers' primary aim is fun.
"The idea is that by the time they get older they will have found a sport that they like because in Rebel Wheelers they get to experience a wider range of sports," he explains.
Visiting trainers regularly come in to give the young Wheelers a taste of something new – golf or karate, for instance, while some sports go on to develop a life of their own.
Basketball, for example, is now so popular there's a separate training session on a Monday night.
"Some of the Rebel Wheelers have started to branch out and get extra training in sports like basketball, table tennis, athletics and rugby and karate," says Mr O'Regan.
It helps children develop good social skills, he says.
"Some of the kids can be very quiet when they first come to us, and it could take them a couple of months to a year to become really engaged."
Formed in 2008 with just five members, the club, which is affiliated to the Irish Wheelchair Association, now boasts 30 children between the ages of five and 18.
It's run by a committee of parents, all on a voluntary basis. They organise events, teach sports and run social and fundraising events.
"Some of the children are wheelchair users, others are not – we have amputees, children with visual impairment and children with spina bifida and cerebral palsy," says Mr O'Regan, who adds that one of the big benefits for children is to have the 24/7 parental spotlight removed for a few hours.
"There's a lot of team work. Often when a child has a disability, the child will be the centre of attention 24/7 and it's very good for them to get away from their parents and mix with other children – and learn that they don't always have to be the centre of attention.
"It helps them grow and develop their social skills and improves their self-confidence and sense of independence. Many of them would not have experienced team work until they came to the Rebel Wheelers. Their focus can be very much on themselves and it's a huge benefit to them to get used to interacting with other children in this way."
Mr O'Regan's nine-year-old son, Darragh, enjoys a variety of sports, but his favourite is wheelchair basketball.
"I love throwing the ball and going up and down the hall really fast in my wheelchair. I love trying to get the ball into the net and I'm getting better at that," enthuses Darragh, from Lombardstown, Co Cork.
The social aspect has been fantastic for Darragh, who has spina bifida.
Mum Michelle says: "It's helped him make friends outside school and has given him the chance to meet other children with a disability. He's really come on and without the Rebel Wheelers he wouldn't be as independent or as outgoing as he is – it's not just the club but the outings to basketball blitzes and tournaments and the social outings as well.
"The physical aspect of it has also been great for his upper-body strength."
Darragh's team-mate, 11-year-old Callum O'Mahony from Douglas, enjoys soccer, but basketball is his big love, partly because of all those wonderful trips away.
"We go to tournaments all around Ireland – I've been to Dublin, Galway. I don't get the ball into the basket a lot, but I'm good at defence. Wheelchair basketball is very fast and I like that, we'd be speeding up and down the hall and that's really good fun!"
The social aspect of the Wheelers has resulted in a lot of new friends for Callum, says dad, Roy.
"Nearly every month they travel somewhere for a basketball blitz and by now Callum knows kids all over the country – we've been to Galway and Dublin and we're going to Limerick soon."
The Rebel Wheelers have big ambitions, admits Mr O'Regan.
"We're hoping that our kids will be the Paralympians of the future. It's a big ambition but we feel it's achievable because they have the support and they're developing an interest and learning the skills from a very young age.
"It's all about early intervention and that's what the Rebel Wheelers is doing."