Orinda native starts for U.S. Paralympic team

Published: July 31, 2004  |  Source: sfgate.com
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In the few spare moments she’s had this summer, Jennifer Howitt has managed to check out some of ESPN’s “sports” offerings.

“A few weeks ago, it was the National Spelling Bee,” she said, “and then there was this hot-dog eating contest.”

She paused to let that sink in before continuing.

“In the wheelchair basketball national championship game this year, a guy named Jeff Glasbrenner scored 63 points,” she said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Sixty-three points! If that game had been televised, I think it would have been really interesting for people to see.”

Not to mention being a healthy boost for a sport that has become a large part of Howitt’s life.

She’s a starting guard on the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team that will be competing at the Paralympics in Athens from Sept. 17-28.

The 22-year-old Howitt, who grew up in Orinda and graduated from Miramonte High School in 2000, has been paralyzed from the waist down since sustaining a severe spinal cord injury in a hiking accident on Mount Diablo when she was 9.

“I only fell about 8 feet,” she said, “but it was the way I landed.”

Not long after being injured, Howitt heard about the sports for disabled youngsters being offered by the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program in Berkeley.

“But I was still in Denial,” she said, “thinking things like, ‘I’m going to get better; I’m not going to be in a wheelchair,’ rather than learning to live with how I was. It was pretty difficult because I was a soccer player, and I had to realize I never could play soccer again.

“But still, sports really helped me. When I was 11, my dad dragged me to see a wheelchair tennis tournament that BORP put on, and that really lit a spark. I started playing wheelchair basketball and also got involved in wheelchair racing.”

She became an international-class athlete in track and road racing, but in 1999 switched her focus to basketball, which she says was “way more fun,” and as an 18-year-old made the 2000 U.S. Paralympic team that finished fifth in Sydney.

Howitt now is far more than just a world-class competitor.

She’s a senior majoring in international politics at Georgetown University (she’ll return to school in January) and possible Rhodes Scholar candidate who is making plans for graduate school. She founded a women’s wheelchair basketball team in Washington, D.C. in 2001 and will coach the 2005 U.S. girls team that will compete in Australia.

“Jennifer is a role model for disabled girls across the country,” said Tim Orr, her longtime coach at BORP. “She is the hardest-working athlete that I have ever worked with in 20 years of coaching wheelchair sports. She’s a great athlete and an even better person.”

Because she doesn’t have use of her abdominal muscles, Howitt is in the most severely injured of several “classes” in wheelchair basketball, and is less mobile than many players, but she has found ways to compensate — and excel.

“The hardest part when you get into the sport is strength, learning to get the ball up to the hoop, which is 10 feet high,” she said. “Beyond that, there’s a lot of strategic stuff. In a lot of ways, it’s like standard basketball. But a ‘pick’ in wheelchair basketball is a lot more effective because you don’t have the same kind of lateral movement.”

Howitt’s role on the U.S. team is mainly to lead her teammates into the key and set them up for shots, rather than being a prolific scorer herself.

“Because I’m little, I get ignored (by defenders) a lot,” she said.

Howitt is still smarting from the fifth-place finish by the United States in Sydney.

“We did awful,” she said, “but we’ve done a lot of work since. We were second in the world championships in 2002 and we’ve beaten Canada (the reigning champion in the sport for a decade) three out of four times in tuneup matches this year. I think we’ll be able to do it again in Athens.”

Meanwhile, Howitt will keep working for acceptance — and attention — for her sport.

“A lot of people look at disabled sports as mixed up with Special Olympics, rather than the really serious sports they are,” she said. “Outside the U.S., we’re getting more attention. The Paralympics in Sydney were huge. But it hasn’t really taken hold here yet.”

Howitt is hoping that will change, and that if ESPN and the national media can spotlight the spellers and the overeaters and the poker players, it can find room for some vastly underexposed athletes. Real athletes.
Others to watch

Three Bay Area female athletes will be joining Jennifer Howitt at the Athens Paralympics in September.

Cheri Blauwet, Stanford student: marathon

Kelly Crowley, San Jose: goalball

Jessie Lorenz, San Francisco: swimming

E-mail Dwight Chapin at dchapin@sfchronicle.com.

– Dwight Chapin, Chronicle Senior Writer