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Paralympics Bring Athletics Full Circle for Doane Graduate

 

Words slammed the door shut, harder than a gust of wind, louder than an angry exit.

"You have to find other ways to compete," the doctors told her.

Running. Jumping -- standard athletics - they were all on the other side of the door.

And Natalie (Nelsen) Schneider was scared of life without them.

She didn't know what remained or that she would knock this gut-wrenching curveball out of the park.

Nearly 10 years later, in a two-bedroom apartment in south Lincoln, she lifts a gold medal from its box as gently as a newborn, extending the perfect gold circle with jade inlay from the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.

She knows the irony. 

Cancer shut sports out of her life.

"But it gave opportunities I never dreamed of," Schneider said.

Like the gold medal; the trip to the White House; the picture with the President; the chance to travel the world at 25.

For a long time now, Schneider has walked in two worlds -- able-bodied and handicapped.

Cancer didn't take her leg.

She is among the wheelchair basketball players who can walk off the court when the buzzer sounds.

She patiently explains why a seemingly-able-bodied athlete plays in a wheelchair and shows the curious the telltale scar on her right leg.

She can lift weights.

She can jump into her husband's arms after winning a gold medal.

But the titanium rod and knee joint that replaced cancerous bone have to last a lifetime. A break or a fall could result in amputation.

To know how hard the doctor's words were to hear, you'd have to know Natalie.

Her dad coached boys' basketball at Crete High School for 24 years, then became an assistant women's basketball coach for nine more at Doane College.

She was the ultimate gym rat, the toddler with basketballs in all her photos who became a fierce competitor just trying to keep up with two older siblings.

Free time equaled time to shoot hoops or shag balls at one of her dad's basketball camps.

As a high-school student with a 4.0 gpa, the 5-foot-9-inch sophomore was an All Conference, All State Honorable Mention varsity athlete, a starting middle blocker on the volleyball team, and a post who averaged 12 points and seven rebounds when she helped her team qualify for the Class B girls' state basketball tournament.

She had big dreams of playing Division 1 some day and had already heard from college recruiters.

But that summer she winced in pick-up games and weight-lifting.

She suspected a torn muscle and agonized about missing one sport to rehabilitate in time for another.

"When the doctors said ‘malignant osteosarcoma' I didn't even know what that was."

The next year was a blur of chemotherapy, hospital stays, major surgery, nausea and pictures of her in a ball cap blowing out 17 candles on a birthday cake in a University of Nebraska Medical Center hospital room.

At that time, losing her athletic identity was more devastating than the cancer, her mother, Nancy, recalls.

"I always knew she would make it. So her senior year, when she was done with chemo, seeing her sit on the sidelines watching her teammates - it was so painful it ate you up."

Natalie met the challenge with grace and a positive spirit.

She graduated salutatorian, and four years later, graduated Magna Cum Laude in math and computer science at Doane.

But something was missing until her mom noticed an article on the Omaha High Rollers sitting volleyball team.

When Natalie took the court for the first time, the competitor in her stormed out of dormancy.

She ended up making the USA sitting volleyball national team. But practices made her leg throb so she put her volleyball career on hold. Teammates suggested wheelchair basketball.

She became the Madonna Magic Wheelchair Basketball team's only female player. At Madonna ProActive in Lincoln, they introduced her to an exhilarating, maddening game, with strategies built around blocking wheelchairs. She learned to shoot entirely with arms that felt like wet noodles after the first quarter.

They also taught her about living -- really living -- with a handicap.

Athletes themselves, they recognized her potential and urged her to a wheelchair basketball camp at the University of Arizona, which eventually led to an invitation to the Paralympic tryouts.

By now, she was married and had a master's degree in statistics and a good job.

"But I wouldn't have missed this chance for the world," she said.

The Paralympic tryouts in Birmingham were intense. In contrast, Natalie was relaxed because  she didn't expect anything but an education. She was one of the few girls competing who didn't come from a college program.

"I went in and I felt like I could make the team eventually. This time, I was there to learn...You have no idea what a shock it was to me that I made it. The team was pretty much set. It was rare for them to add a new member a few months before Paralympics."

This was the team that won the gold medal in ‘04 in Athens.

In Natalie's eyes, what says the most about her teammates was that they were as bonded as a team could be, yet welcomed her with open arms.

It shows in the team picture.

She's No. 8, with the long ponytail and muscular arms and torso from hours in the weight room, looking like one of the gang.

After the team was announced, she sent a text message to her mom that Nancy will never forget:

"I'm going to China."

Natalie prepared for the Paralympics by training like an Olympian.

She took a leave of absence from work and followed daily workouts created by her father, Dennis.

Chair skills, she was told, were the main obstacle to achieving her paralympic potential. 

At 25, Natalie was the median age on a roster that included 18-to-31-year-olds, but she had only a fraction of the time they had spent in a wheelchair.

What she did have was talent, and what coaches call "basketball IQ."

All those hours she spent in the gym in high school, shooting, perfecting; all those  basketball camps and summer days doing full conditioning - everything she thought was a waste - paid off now. 

Between training camps in Birmingham and Colorado Springs, the 12-member team e-mailed all summer, encouraging and pushing each other.

They expected the gold, Natalie said.

"We were the defending gold medalists. We just needed to stay grounded."

Cliché or not, the days in Beijing representing her country were surreal.

"The opening ceremonies, walking into the Birds Nest with the other athletes, that was just amazing."

The team sailed through opening games, beating Germany, Australia, Great Britain and Brazil. The opening game, though, was tough as they battled back from a 12-point first-quarter deficit to win 42-38. Other games, they won by 30 points.

They succeeded because they had more depth than any other team, according to Natalie. They also won because of their intimidating press, which in one game didn't even allow the opposing team to make it to the three-point line at times.

Natalie put in her rookie time, spending some games mostly on the bench. In others, like the first round against Great Britain, she played the entire second half and scored nine points in front of an audience that included her parents, in-laws and husband, Dan.

The adrenalin - playing for the first time for your country in front of thousands of fans -- is something she'll never forget or replicate, she said.

Natalie was on the court, and then in the middle of the hoopla and jubilation, when the buzzer sounded the 50-38 win over Germany and the gold medal.

 "We were all screaming and celebrating, shaking hands with Germany."

Of the gold medal ceremony everyone asks about, she'll remember this:

"I could not wipe the smile off my face."

She'll also remember the teammates she already misses.

What do you do after you win a gold medal?

Go back to Paralympic village, eat cocoa puffs and giggle into the night.

Back at home, she is jetlagged and a little overwhelmed at the requests for media interviews and lectures to young athletes.

"It's still so hard to believe this actually happened," she said.

She'll join the team in February for a tournament in Japan. If she's lucky, she'll get to compete in Germany in the summer of 09.

This sport will likely take her around the world. 

But memories can also take her back like the cancer was yesterday.

Back to high school, when her brain knows she can no longer run, but something inside her is still chomping at the bit to join the team on the court. 

"I always wanted my (high school) coach to put me in. ‘Just one play,' I'd tell him. ‘I'll stand at the other end of the court and shoot.'"

His answer was always ‘No -- too big a risk."

That's the thing about the Paralympics and all the teammates she met.

They all have a story like hers, one that starts with, but eclipses, regret.

"The Paralympics are the same as Olympics. Elite athletes participate - they just have some kind of limitation keeping them from able-bodied sports."