Women changing the game at wheelchair basketball national levels.

Wheelchair Basketball

Action-packed, fast-paced and a showcase of skill and agility. These are just three ways you could describe the action at the British Wheelchair Basketball National Championships at the weekend.

The event, which takes place in Sheffield and marks the end of the domestic league season in the UK, saw rivalries renewed and champions crowned as the top four teams from all divisions - Premier to third - went head to head to battle for the titles on offer.

And well and truly making sure they were in the centre of the action was some pretty game-changing women who took to the court as players, coaches and referees. 

Give Me Sport Women's Gemma-Louise Stevenson caught up with three of them to talk about the various roles women play in wheelchair basketball's National League, a mixed league where male and female athletes take to the court together.

The General
Louise Sugden's journey into coaching began as she was winding up her playing career and has seen her progress through the ranks all the way to becoming the head coach of Premier Division side the London Titans.

Alongside her coaching career, she is also quite a successful para-powerlifter and is looking to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. "I find sometimes basketball gets neglected a bit these days but I have some amazing assistant coaches at Titans that I trust to get the players through the training sessions when I can't be there," she explained. 

"I'm away half the week training myself but the team are incredibly supportive and their support helps me do my best as a coach and that's the most important thing."

But getting to where she is now hasn't come without its challenges and one occasion in particular sticks out in her memory - while she was coaching at the Euro Cup last year.

"I was the only female coach and I had to overcome quite a few barriers," she said. "It was mainly the table officials asking my assistant coach for the team which got to me a little bit because I was like I'm here, I'm the coach, you should be asking me that.

"It's little things like that though that we're helping to change by being visible and helping to improve the perception of female coaches." 

Wheelchair Basketball

And the Euro Cup is still something she counts as one of her proudest moments as a coach. Sugden explained, "I really had to work hard for that one but it fills me with a lot of pride when I think of what we achieved to get there and the level of respect I get from my team as a coach - that means quite a lot to me."

The Playmaker
Laurie Williams was involved in one of the matches that the crowds couldn't wait for - the Premier Division final - which saw one of the biggest rivalries in the domestic game, the Owls versus Sheffield Steelers - play out in front of our eyes.

As one of two women in the Owls squad who finished as Premier Division runners-up this year Williams praises how being part of a mixed team of male and female athletes has helped her game, developing her physicality, improving her defence and increases her fitness levels.

"When I play with and against the men, there is no female competition like that so from that perspective it's the best competition I could be getting," she explained. "It's a lot more physical so it's challenging me and pushing me to be able to keep up. 

Wheelchair Basketball

"Also women's league is only a few weeks of the year so if I couldn't play in a mixed league I wouldn't be able to play as much."

Although there are distinct differences in her role when playing in a mixed team compared when she plays in the women's league.

"In the women's league I play as a 2.5 and based on that classification you are expected to ball handle a lot, distribute it and shoot," Williams continued. "Whereas when I move to play in National League game alongside the men I play as one pointer whose role is not necessary to have a lot of on-ball action so my game changes completely and whilst I really love playing alongside the men sometimes it is tough going between the two."

The Guardians
It's not just within the teams that we saw women challenging perceptions, they were also well-represented in the official's area too.

Robyn Muir and Frances Kremarik are both regulars when it comes to refereeing wheelchair basketball matches and it's their job to make sure everything runs smoothly in relation to managing coaches and players and making sure their well-being is being taken into account as much as looking at the rules and interpretations of them.

Although sometimes it doesn't always go to plan. Kremarik describes one incident involving some cheerleaders accidentally coming on to perform during a substitution, thinking it was a time out, as one of "the funniest moments" she's had in any game. 

Wheelchair Basketball

"We brought the subs in and next thing you know there are 30 girls dancing in the middle of the floor just as I'm about to put the ball in play, " she explained. "They danced for about 20 seconds before they realised they weren't supposed to be there."

Both began their careers in basketball in the running game, Kremarik as a player and Muir thanks to growing up around the game, her mum being one of the running games few female commissioners.

"I think eventually I just got to the point where I said do you know what if I'm going to be here I may as well do something," Muir joked.

And they are both passionate about encouraging more women into refereeing, whatever sport they choose to officiate.

Muir describes the bonds she's made over the years with other female officials from across a variety of sports including basketball, football and cricket as "unbreakable" and told Give Me Sport Women, "For me, female officials across all sports are very under-represented, we need more female of them."

"If there's another female official we're going to help you out," Kremarik added. "We help and support each other, you'll never be alone and you're always going to have somebody in your corner to give it a go."

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