Wheelchair Reinvention: In Conversation With Mareike Miller

Wheelchair Basketball: Mareike Miller
Photos courtesy of Mareike Miller

At 14 years old, Mareike Miller (née Adermann) seemed to have all the makings of a professional basketball player. But during her first major game at the senior level—the championship game of the women’s regional basketball team in her home country of Germany—she suffered a serious torn ligament. It would change the way she played, but it wouldn’t stop her.

That injury, which required an operation and eight months of rehab, was swiftly followed by a second, then a third and a fourth. When it became clear that Miller could not continue to play able-bodied basketball, she began to compete in a wheelchair. In 2012, she and her team won a gold medal at the Summer Paralympics in London.

Though Miller has since had to undergo knee surgeries that sometimes sidelined her training, she continued to compete internationally. She even managed to complete her Bachelor’s and get her Master’s degrees within two years of winning the Paralympics gold. And this coming season she’ll start playing for a US team, the Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks.

Miller tells us that switching to wheelchair basketball was an opportunity, not a compromise. “It gave me hope and allowed me to be competitive in a sport I loved again,” she says. “At no point did I think it was the same; rather, it was more. It challenged me in so many ways and gave me greater opportunities than able-bodied basketball had or ever could have.”

“I found a way and I’ll always find a way to do what I love.”

Beyond the obvious, what’s the biggest difference between wheelchair basketball and the standard game?

Mareike Miller: The biggest factor that isn’t visible to most people is the strength and endurance that wheelchair basketball demands. Most people can see that it’s difficult to coordinate dribbling the ball and pushing the chair. However, it’s hard to see that even if you come from able-bodied basketball, athletically you can’t do this sport at all. It takes a long time to develop the necessary arm strength and endurance.

For me personally, endurance was always my strong athletic skill. Even so, having done almost all of my endurance training by running or biking—using my leg strength—I physically could not practice wheelchair basketball for longer than 10 minutes at first. I would be sorer than I’d ever been in my 10 years of able-bodied basketball.

Earlier in your career, you rehabbed for eight months only to suffer another injury quickly upon returning to the court. What was that like?

Mareike Miller: In fact, I rehabbed for eight months three times in a row only to be re-injured every time I’d try and start over. It was a terrible feeling and I was too young to really understand what was happening or to have clear thoughts about it. All I knew was that I love basketball and that no matter how many injuries I got, I never wanted to give it up.

But eventually, I had to listen to my doctors and accept that there was no chance I would be able to continue, that trying so many times had done serious damage to my body. It was disappointing and hard to accept because I grew up with the mentality that with enough hard work, I could do almost anything. But in this case, I couldn’t, and no one could explain to me why. There were no studies to tell me why this was happening to me over and over again, there was nothing visible that I did wrong. I simply had to give up what I loved most because the doctors said so.

I was fortunate enough to have a physical education teacher and friends who gave me the opportunity to coach basketball instead. But at that age, I knew I still wanted to compete. And I have the same people to thank for getting me to wheelchair basketball.

How has playing wheelchair basketball changed your perspective about disabilities in sports and in life in general?

Mareike Miller: Before wheelchair basketball, I was never aware of or involved with any disabled sports. I didn’t really know anyone with a disability even outside of sports. I had the general idea that it was a bad thing to sit in a wheelchair, that it’s tragic to have to do so because it’s not what we’re meant for. However, I got involved with wheelchair basketball and got to know so many people in disabled sports, I now understand that this was an uneducated view that only someone who knew no disabled people could have.

Wheelchair sports are incredible. People with disabilities are people with greater motivation. Whether it’s a disability by birth or due to an accident, all it does is make you understand that you can’t take everything for granted. Disability is not about what you don’t have or can’t do. It allows understanding what you can do and what you have.

It’s a view that many others lack, an advantage that allows people to focus on the things that allow us to enjoy life and achieve more. This is why I try with great passion to pass on all I’ve learned and to push for disabled sports to become better known.

You’re classified as a 4.5 point player, the lowest level of disability, meaning you’re able to do everyday activities without a wheelchair. How common is that in wheelchair basketball? Assuming your teammates aren’t all in the same position, how do they react to that?

Mareike Miller: It’s not as rare as one would think. I would estimate about 30-40% of the athletes in wheelchair basketball don’t regularly use a wheelchair in everyday life. As I like to point out, wheelchair basketball is one of the most inclusive sports there is, as it allows people with any kind of physical disability to play on the same team.

At the same time, it’s necessary to have a good mix of disabilities, as there is a point system put in place to make sure the teams play with an equal degree of disability on the court at all times. So to have the best team, it’s important to have a range of players with different backgrounds, abilities and disability classifications. It’s normal that one of these classifications includes players who are able to walk. (By walking, that includes prosthetics, or in my case, knees that have been operated on “only” six times.) The main point here is that while we are fortunate to be able to walk, we are equally in need of a sports chair to compete in sports in any way.

Everyone involved understands this and knows that what binds us together is the sports wheelchairs. The only ones who react a bit surprised are new spectators who assume that playing in a sports wheelchair automatically means you should be using a wheelchair in everyday life.

You’ve become something of a symbol for overcoming obstacles, something that I’d think would come with a lot of pressure and responsibility. Do you enjoy that responsibility?

Mareike Miller: I don’t really feel any pressure. I find it’s a great reward to share with others how I was able to overcome my obstacles and to help them to do so as well. I enjoy sharing my passion for disabled sports and I enjoy helping others learn what I got to know. It’s great to see the awareness of and interest in disability and disabled sports grow, though we still have a long way to go.