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paralympian Joanne Kelly

by Michelle Ballentine | October 5, 2000

It is a privilege to know someone, to be a witness to their life, to their mistakes and accomplishments, and to all of the subtle changes by which each of us grows. It is a blessing for me to know Joanne Kelly.

I met Joanne 22 years ago. Now she has a 14-year-old son, Kyle, who is the apple of his mother’s eye and a remarkable young man. Jo is as dedicated a dedicated mother. She works full-time, is the only parent her son has ever known and, with all of this on her plate, she has found time for sports.

Jo focuses her energy on playing wheelchair basketball. She joined the Calgary Rollers, a women’s only team, nine years ago. Since then, she has improved to the point where she has won a spot on the National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team five years in a row.

The day I met Joanne was the first day of high school. I approached a group of kilted girls standing in the sun, nervously waiting for the new day to begin and a new world to open. I must now admit that what drew me to her was what that uniform could not hide. What it left exposed was Joanne’s difference: a brace that fully supported her right leg and a metal cane that extended from her right hand.

I can’t remember who spoke first, but by the end of the day we were friends. We started our phase of getting into teenage trouble together. In those first few months, I entered a kind of friendship that I had never before experienced and which I value to this day. That friendship led me to a world where I learned that visible difference is often misleading when it comes to individual uniqueness. That difference may be what makes, not breaks, a life.

It didn’t take long for Joanne to explain why she wore the leg brace. I cringe at the thought that if she hadn’t told me, it probably would have taken me months to ask. She told me that she had a condition known as spina bifida; a congenital defect of the spine. The term refers to how it looks: open spine. At birth, that opening may be covered by skin or bone, or have a pool of liquid (spinal fluid) surrounding it, and its disabling effects depend on its location. These effects can be moderate to severe, affecting the nerves and organs below the opening on the spine. Improper draining of the cerebral spinal fluid can also cause a condition referred to as hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus, along with the treatment of it, can cause brain damage. Joanne was lucky to have avoided this condition which is common among those born with spina bifida.

Joanne explained the science of her disease; in time, I learned how it affected her. Most of the nerve function below her waist does not work very well. There were operations every year of her childhood and well into her teens. There was pain and suffering that very few adults could endure. At the time we met, she could walk with the assistance of the cane and brace, but she explained that one day she would be in a wheelchair.

That first winter when we walked the icy streets together, I learned something about the need to pick yourself up. Joanne fell – a lot! It only took snow wiggling its way under a weakly placed foot to trip her.

Nothing angered her more than someone coming out of nowhere to rescue her, without even a polite “May I help you up.” People thought they where doing her a favour, but she could get up by herself. If needed, she had her friends to ask, or who would offer; these strangers were always unnecessary. Much to her comfort, she was in a wheelchair within a few years.

The first full summer we spent together, she was able to compete for the first time in a wheelchair sporting event. With absolutely no training, she brought home three golds and two silvers in athletics. At the time, she didn’t know that she was so gifted in sports; that would come later.

Jo struggled for years with the challenges all women face coming of age. After giving birth to a son and finally landing a good job to go to every day, Jo met another young woman who brought her the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball. I laugh to myself when I think of us as teens playing basketball at a neighbour’s. Even then, she was more able than I – so much for the advantage of bipedal locomotion!

Jo grabbed the opportunity and joined Calgary’s Rocky Mountain Rollers. To keep the teams even in competitive play, there is a “functional classification system.” Athletes are rated as to their ability and assigned points that are in accordance with this assessment. There is a limit to the number of points allowed in play by a team at a given time, and it is up to the coach to determine which players will be put together to meet that number. This point system allows for equity between teams so that there is no unfair advantage.

Teams such as the Rollers (women only) and Toronto’s Spitfires (men only) play in divisions which compete Canada-wide. Some divisions consists of everyone who wants to play: women and men, from able-bodied (AB’s) to paraplegics. Other divisions are all one sex or the other. When it comes to international play, women and men play separately. The aim of wheelchair basketball, according to the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Association (CWBA) mission statement, it that “inclusion [be] fundamental.” It’s the ultimate dream team, with an attitude that we wish were present in all aspects of society.

The Paralympics were first held in Rome, in 1960, but did not use Olympic venues until 1988 in Seoul. The Canadian women’s team won gold medals at three consecutive Paralympic Games in 2000 (Sydney), 1996 (Atlanta) and 1992 (Barcelona), and at the World Championships in 1998 (Sydney), 1994 (England) and 1991 (France). They also won the regional qualifying tournaments in 1999 (Mexico) and 1997 (Winnipeg). They are a formidable team and give competing teams a serious run for the net.

All of these women are elite athletes, as are all who compete in world class championships. The only difference is that these Paralympians have disabilities which range from paraplegia to blindness, and now include those with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. This is unlike the Special Olympics which are only for those who are mentally disabled.

The games offer no compensation for these competitors’ disabilities; accommodations are made only in matters of fairness, such as having a ringing ball for a blind competitor. In basketball, the net is not lowered nor is the court size adjusted. While there are small modifications in the rules of play, all are playing regulation ball – except they are doing it from a wheelchair. All of the participants at the Paralympics have trained as hard and sacrificed as much as every other world class athlete.

I am aware of the many challenges Jo has faced: the sprains and pains that result from serious training and play. I am aware of the sacrifices that she and her son have made. I’m not surprised that she competed with her team in Australia. I’m not surprised that she is what is called an “elite athlete;” that on the competitive level, she is a “Silken Lauman” or an “Elizabeth Manly.” Jo is an Olympic athlete by world standards.

I am overwhelmed by my admiration for her. I’m so excited about this adventure of hers that I spent hours trying to figure out how many of my possessions I would have to sell to be in Sydney cheering her on and sharing in her achievement. My apartment would have been emptied, so I did what I’ve done for years – I was with her in spirit and on line at the CWBA website every day. I was jumping up and down cheering for her and the team. Jo did what she has always done – walk along a road with uncertain footing, pick herself up when the wiggles trip her, and join a team of equally determined women.

resources for this story

spina bifida

  • Climb That Hill, by JOANNE MATHIEU


  • Margaret Moves, by BERNIECE RABE
  • With a Little Help From My Friend, by FRANCIS HOWLER

wheelchair basketball

  • Wheelchair Basketball, by STAN LABANOWICH
  • Playing and Coaching Wheelchair Basketball, by ED OWEN
  • Sports for the Handicapped, by ANNE ALLEN
  • Wheeler’s Choice, Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association


  • Newsletter – Paralympics: Where Heroes Come, by ROBERT D. STEADWARD and CYNTHIA J. PETERSON

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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