When life gives you a wheelchair, find a basketball court | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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When life gives you a wheelchair, find a basketball court

It was just an ordinary day when 13-year-old schoolboy Steven Elliott started to feel sudden pain in his legs. He had just started high school. Sports-mad, with all the energy of a rugby-loving, adrenaline-seeking teenage boy.

The leg pains started out of the blue. Within hours, he couldn’t move from the neck down. Rushed to the Royal Brisbane Children's Hospital, Steven spent the next eight hours in an MRI machine, before he was finally diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called transverse myelitis, caused by inflammation in his spinal cord.

For several months afterward, Steven was completely paralysed. Over time, he recovered upper-body movement. He then had to learn how to get on with life as a T11 paraplegic.

Anyone, especially at the volatile age of 13, could be forgiven for falling into despair and anger at what life had so unfairly dealt. Which is why Steven’s positive outlook and his achievements to date are truly extraordinary.

“At the time, it was a shock, but now I think it’s for the best… I don't think I would have had the same opportunities to see the world and play basketball, and play professionally,” he says.

Today, at 29, Steven is a Paralympic athlete and a professional wheelchair basketball player. And, after seven years of studying at the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC), he is preparing to graduate with a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science, minoring in Event Management and Tourism.

Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science

Exercise scientists use the science of human movement to help people improve their health and fitness, and to prevent common lifestyle diseases.

Reflecting on that time when his life turned upside down, Steven says while it was a tough adjustment, he decided to make the most of what he had.

“I had to overcome a lot… I had just started high school, but I had to switch schools because it didn’t have wheelchair access,” Steven says.

“I loved my sports, loved my rugby league, distance running and all contact sports, so it was hard to accept I couldn’t do those anymore.”

“One day, my stepdad walked in and said, ‘The world's gonna run with you or without you, so what are you gonna’ do?’

“It was one of those things where I could sit there and say, ‘Oh, why me?’ Or, I could just keep moving on and make the best of it,” Steven says.

Make the best of it he did, and despite feeling “very scared to try things” he was determined to find a way to resume an active life.

“The number of times I broke a wheelchair just trying to do normal teenage stuff,” he laughs.

Steven with his mum, shortly after becoming a paraplegic, and after he joined the Sunshine Coast Spinners at 14 years old. Steven went on to captain the Queensland Rolling Thunder.

Despite “not liking” basketball before his illness, Steven was desperate for an outlet after he returned home from his long hospital stay. At the age of 14, he found the Sunshine Coast Spinners – a social wheelchair sport club – joined them, and absolutely loved the speed and contact of wheelchair basketball.

“My biggest challenge was learning to control my chair… I was brought up with a lot of contact sport, and at first, I wanted to get in there and smash my wheelchair around, which apparently wasn’t allowed.”

“I thought, ‘Hang on… I've got a metal frame now, I can really get people!’ But I got caught every time, so I had to learn how to how to control my chair.”

After eight months of playing, the opportunities started knocking. He got picked up by the Queensland juniors, and in 2016, he played for Australia at the Champions Cup in Japan. He also represented the Australian Under-23 Spinners while captaining the Queensland Rolling Thunder. In 2018 Steven was part of the bronze medal-winning Australian Rollers World Championship team. He was set to go for gold in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics, but COVID-19 interfered.

In 2022, Steven was invited to play professionally in Europe. He travelled to Italy, to the town of Treviso, to join one of the top three leagues in the world. This latest season has seen him play in Germany.

Alongside his athletic career, Steven has been juggling a part-time study load at UniSC, a journey he’s been on since enrolling in UniSC’s inaugural Sports Elite and Education Dual Stream (SEEDS) program, the first of its kind in an Australian university.

“SEEDS was created to support para-athletes to combine sport with study, so I joined that program and loved it,” he says.

“Then, the High Performance Student Athlete program (HPSA) came about at UniSC to help athletes succeed in both sports and study, which is awesome… we have over 300 athletes in the program now.

“With injuries and everything else, it’s rare that athletes get a long sporting career, so we need a backup to eventually go into what we say is the ‘real world.’

“HPSA allows us to focus on being an athlete, and study on the side. Studying part time makes it much easier, as I manage a full-time training environment plus study, but the uni has been so supportive and there to help.”

Steven recently scored a work placement with the Sunshine Coast Lightning, where he’s been actively involved in game days and bump-in scheduling.

“Working with the Sunshine Coast Lightning has been an amazing experience, because as an athlete, we just show up and expect the event to run smoothly and on time, we don't get to see all the behind the scenes... I won't take a tournament for granted ever again.”

Now, nearing the end of his uni studies, Steven has so much gratitude for his friends, family, and girlfriend, for being there to help when he needed it.

“They sacrificed a great deal, and without them, it would be nearly impossible to do what I do,” he says.

His message for other athletes is to “look for opportunities,” especially because these days athletes have the flexibility and freedom to play overseas to gain the best opportunities, while also studying.

“I’ve learned that at the end of the day, the world will go on with or without you, so even if it's just little things day to day, go out there and try something new.”

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A new generation of sporting excellence at UniSC

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