German and Canadian wheelchair basketball national team players balance athletics and studies on foreign soil
A small town in Alabama, USA, may not seem like an ideal hub for international athletes but that is where Germany’s Katharina Lang and Canada’s Rosalie Lalonde happily find themselves these days.
Each chose to come to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa for various reasons but share one common denominator: playing wheelchair basketball at arguably the best programme in the country, while living the US student life.
"The US is the only country that has a college league," said Lalonde. "Training full-time is really hard back in our countries, so playing in the US was just the best option to be a full-time athlete and student."
With state-of-the-art accessible facilities found at Alabama, the university is one of a handful of schools offering collegiate adaptive sports. The women’s wheelchair basketball programme is one of the strongest, with the team coming off back-to-back national titles, their seventh overall. For Lang and Lalonde, there is nothing like it back home.
"We get to play pretty much whenever we want," said Lang, who was part of Germany’s bronze medal squad at the 2018 World Championships. "We can go to the gym whenever we want, we have individual practices if we want to — you can't do that at home."
Lalonde explained that the support is not just in accessibility: the coaching leadership keeps athletes motivated.
"We have a structure here," she said. "The training environment is special. There's people who push you all the time, and you have to train — you can't be like, 'Oh, I'm tired today, I won't go to the gym'. No, you have to go."
Admittedly, that is not the only reason the two were drawn to Alabama.
"I knew people who came here before me, and when you come here to visit the campus, it's crazy, it's beautiful — we don't have anything like that in our home country,” Lalonde said. “Just seeing the facilities and how athletes are treated here: we're kind of superstars in the US because the college experience is so different."
Lang was recruited by German teammate and Alabama alumna Barbara Gross, and once she set foot on campus, she likened seeing the quad and athletic facilities to "being in a movie".
It is not the only movie reference that came to mind.
Lalonde, who helped Team Canada win the Lima 2019 Parapan American title, likes to remind people of a famous film character who wore the Crimson Tides’ red and white.
"Back home, [I'm] like, 'Yeah, I went to the same school as Forrest Gump,' and people are like, 'Oh my God!', so it's funny," she said.
Hollywood aside, the Alabama brand has global recognition, with Lang recounting moments when she randomly heard "Roll Tide!" in Germany and Australia.
© Alabama Adapted Athletics
"Everyone wants to beat Bama, so it's fun to wear the jersey," the Canadian said. "Bama has a really good reputation for athletics, so it's a big honour to be a part of it."
Their part in it as wheelchair basketball players is also recognised. When the women's team won the 2021 national title this year, the entire school got an e-mail about it, and Lang's teachers congratulated her in front of the class.
"It's awesome, because everyone knows," the German said. "Everyone is more interested in watching it. I've had a couple classmates who contacted me afterwards and asked me when they can watch the games and if there are more games or practices they can watch or go to."
Even though they are in an elite programme, they are aware of the inequities female Para athletes face.
"Basketball is a very physical contact sport, so sometimes it scares away people, but we need to understand that women are a lot stronger than people think,” Lalonde said. “It's about recruiting and changing our idea about what women can and cannot do."
The duo play for Alabama from August to May, then travel back home to play for their national teams during summer. This year, that means the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the two will go from teammates to opponents.
As Tokyo 2020 nears, Lang and Lalonde are thankful to "actually have a goal again" and "train with a purpose" following challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When you're on court, you fight for your team: there's no friendship," Lalonde laughed. "It's always fun to see Kate in international tournaments. It's just fun to have this connection and to be able to go talk to her, even if she's not on my team."
By Aryanna Prasad for the International Paralympic Committtee