Byline: Patricia Babcock McGraw
When Stevenson High School graduate Jennifer Warkins made the newspapers for helping the U.S. women's wheelchair basketball team win a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Athens, her family was inundated with questions.
"My sister (Deanna) works at Stevenson, and I guess a lot of people were coming up to her and going, 'What happened to Jennifer? Is Jennifer OK?'" said Warkins, who spoke at her alma mater Friday as part of Wheel Awareness Week. "They said they didn't know I had been in an accident."
Well, that's because Warkins wasn't in an accident.
Warkins, who graduated from Stevenson in 1996 and was the starting small forward for the girls basketball team during its run to back-to-back IHSA state championships in 1995 and 1996, can walk and even run - although only straight ahead. Lateral movement is a problem, as are any sudden twists, turns or stops.
Since her junior year at Stevenson, Warkins has had three major surgeries to repair torn ligaments in her left knee. She first hurt it when she collided with a defender in a basketball game during the 1995 season. She was never quite the same and nearly all recruiting interests vanished.
After months of rehab, Warkins' heart sank when she reinjured the knee as a freshman at the University of Illinois while trying to turn a double play on the softball diamond.
Three years later, when she heard that notorious popping sound while simply walking down the street, she knew she wasn't just unlucky.
"The doctors couldn't figure out why I kept tearing up the same knee," she said. "They finally decided that I had some kind of quadriceps and ligament deficiency in my left knee and that when I would walk or run, my quardriceps wasn't contracting the right way. I was told that I really shouldn't play (sports) anymore."
Of course, that only applied to stand-up or able-bodied sports, as the 26-year-old Warkins calls them now.
Little did she know she was about to discover a new world of sports that would make her sore, banged-up knees irrelevant.
"I basically sunk myself into school after that and decided to stay at Illinois and go for my masters (in higher education and administration)," said Warkins, who also received her doctorate in sports management from Illinois. "I became friends with these guys from one of my classes and I found out they played wheelchair basketball. When I told them I had played basketball, they told me they were going to go shoot around after class and asked if I wanted to come.
"They had an extra chair, and I kind of wanted to try it out. When they found out I had had all those knee problems, they told me I might be able to play wheelchair basketball. They told their coach about me, and I guess the rest is history."
For wheelchair basketball, a player need not be permanently confined to a wheelchair. If it is determined by doctors that an athlete can no longer safely or practically participate in stand-up basketball, then he or she can participate at the wheelchair level - even though most of the participants are usually wheelchair bound. …