Cottonwood HS graduate Ali Ibanez will fulfill her Paralympic dreams later this month in TokyoAug 05, 2021 02:32PM ● By Carl Fauver
Cottonwood HS graduate Ali Ibanez will be a senior at the University of Illinois this fall. (tumgir.com) Ibanez 2: Ali Ibanez will fulfill her biggest dream later this month, when she begins wheelchair basketball play at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy Ali Ibanez)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
A little more than three years ago, the City Journals introduced readers to Cottonwood High School senior wheelchair basketball star Ali Ibanez. She was a 4.0 student facing the big decision of which college to attend. In that April 2018 article she commented, “My real goal is to make the 2020 Women’s Basketball Paralympic Games team.”
Guess what? On Aug. 17, Ibanez and her 11 USA teammates will board a Tokyo-bound plane. And, eight days later, Ibanez, 21, will fulfill that dream, when she competes in her first Paralympic game, versus the Netherlands. Japan will be the seventh foreign country she has visited, playing her game and pursuing that dream.
“So far I’ve been to the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Thailand, Australia and Peru for competitions as well as friendlies,” she said. “This will be my first time going to Japan—I’m pretty excited about it!”
Born with a congenital disease called arthrogryposis, Ibanez has never walked. But unlike most people with the condition, it has not debilitated her upper body. That rare fortune has allowed her to play wheelchair basketball since she was 13 years old.
“My older sister was babysitting for a family that lived across the street from Woodstock Elementary School (6015 S. 1300 East),” Ibanez said. “She called me from there to say, ‘You’ve got to hurry over here to see this.’ What she had seen was a wheelchair basketball team arriving and unloading for practice.”
That group, the Utah Rush wheelchair basketball team, was coached by Marilyn Blakley.
“Ali came right over to talk to us,” Blakley recalled. “And it wasn’t long before she was on our team. The U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team is the most prestigious team any of our Rush players have been on.”
Back in 2018, Ibanez was named to the U.S. Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball Team by head coach Trooper Johnson, himself a former wheelchair basketball star. Two years later, in March 2020—just days before COVID-19 shut down the sports world—coach Johnson also selected her for his USA Paralympic team.
“Ali is incredibly coachable, with a lot of energy and hustles her butt off,” Johnson said. “You ask her to do something and she will go out and do it. (In the Paralympic Games) I probably see her as a sixth man, the way the lineup is. She is coming in to offer a lot. Ali is more of a defensive specialist and small forward.”
Ibanez says she will be happy to help the team however the coach needs her.
“I expect to be as supportive and as prepared as possible, wherever I’m needed, whether it be on the court or not,” she said. “In relation to on-court expectations, I am prepared to help get my teammates open on offense as well as utilize my defensive capabilities.”
After claiming the 2016 Paralympic Women’s Basketball gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, the USA team will have the biggest bullseye on its back, of any team in Tokyo. However, they may also have suffered the biggest setback among the teams, thanks to coronavirus.
“When the Paralympic Games were delayed a year because of COVID, three of my 12 team members resigned (for various personal reasons, not because they had the disease),” coach Johnson said. “One of the three, Becca Murray, was the leading scorer on that 2016 gold medal team. She is a unique athlete we could plug in anywhere. We’ve had to rework the offense.”
Once Ibanez’s team gets started on Aug. 25, their games come fast and furious. After the Netherlands on that Wednesday, they face Spain the next day (Aug. 26), China two days later (Aug. 28) and Algeria the day after that (Aug. 29).
Assuming USA advances out of pool play—eight of the 10 teams do—Ibanez and her teammates play their quarterfinal game Tuesday, Aug. 31. The Women’s Paralympic Basketball semifinal games are on Sept. 2, with the gold and bronze medal games two days later (Sept. 4), the day before the Paralympic Games closing ceremony.
“I’m not sure if I can find the right word for (how excited I am to be on the Paralympic team),” Ibanez said. “I’ve had this goal since I watched the team compete in Rio in 2016. It was definitely a surreal moment when I had the honor of accepting a spot on the roster in 2020 and once again just a few weeks ago. I hope my effort and hard work demonstrates to others, nothing comes easy. But by trusting the process, and keeping sight on one’s goals, success becomes inevitable.”
According to her Team USA profile (teamusa.org/para-wheelchair-basketball/athletes/Ali-Ibanez), Ibanez is the “daughter of Tiffanie and Sergio Ibanez…has four sisters, Andrea, Elizabeth, her twin Elena, and Brook, and two brothers, Gabe and Isaac…with hobbies that include drawing and sketching, rock climbing and reading mystery and crime novels.”
As for playing in virtually empty Tokyo arenas due to the pandemic, she admits it will be different.
“We’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of games with a developing men’s team while training in Ohio over the summer without in-person fans,” Ibanez said. “But, as far as having no in-person fans goes, I think it will be pretty strange especially during a competition as elite as the Paralympic Games.”
Following the Tokyo games, Ibanez will return to the Midwest to begin her senior year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She’s majoring in graphic design and will continue playing for the women’s wheelchair basketball team there, coached by Stephanie Wheeler.
But assuming he’ll keep her around—as he has for three-plus years now—Team USA coach Johnson will not have seen the last of Ibanez.
“I plan to stay involved with international ball after Tokyo,” she concluded. “I hope to be able to compete in the 2024 games in Paris. But I’ll have to just wait and see how it plays out.”
For now, Ibanez wants to see how the end of this month and start of next month “plays out” and whether she departs Japan with a gold Paralympic Games medal dangling around her neck.