UW-Whitewater Has A Very Successful Wheelchair Athletics Program

By Ryan Ward | September 22, 2016


Laura Vacek was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma in her right femur when she was only seven years old. The sometimes fatal disease is a rare form of bone cancer that accounts for only 1% of all childhood cancers.

“It was the size of a banana, that’s how the doctors described it,” Vacek said. “I did eight rounds of chemo and then they did a big surgery to replace my femur bone with a metal rod.”

It would eventually take sixteen rounds of chemo total before she would become cancer free by the 8th grade. However, a second surgery to replace the metal rod in Vacek’s leg would lead to further complications. 

“During that surgery they accidently cut my sciatic nerve,” Vacek said. “And when I woke up I had drop foot and a lot of nerve damage from that surgery.”

Nerve damage that would create a permanent limp in the way she walks. This prohibited her from being able to fully run or jump. Limiting Vacek on what she could do in terms of physical activity.

“Getting into high school and stuff where I just wanted to be normal, it was very frustrating,” Vacek said.

Needing an outlet for her frustration, the idea of wheelchair basketball was brought to her attention.

“Wasn’t very opened to the idea immediately because I can walk so why would I do wheelchair basketball?” Vacek said. “But I watched a practice and then I was like, okay, maybe I’ll try it. It’s not as bad as it looks. So I tried it and I really liked it.”

Vacek would join the Milwaukee Heat. A youth co-ed wheelchair basketball team in the Wisconsin Adaptive Sports Association. It was a place where she could grow her skills and learn how to play the game.

“Yeah, I couldn’t push the chair at all. Dribbling, I couldn’t do dribbling,” Vacek said. “I had to keep it on my lap for a while. Couldn’t make it in the basket, couldn’t even make it to the rim.”

She would eventually get better. So good that she received an offer to play at the collegiate level for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. A program that has won three national championships in the last eight years for wheelchair basketball. Making it one of the top teams in the country. Head coach Dan Price recruited Vacek due to her spunky attitude. Something he felt would fit well with the rest of the Lady Warhawks.

“One of the things that she brings is a little bit of sass,” said Price.  “I think every team has to have a little bit of sass.”

Vacek’s talent on the court was still developing. She’d be competing against people who mostly have spent their entire lives in a wheelchair. Vacek only required one for when she played basketball.

“She had a lot of raw talent. And we knew that she could be a great player going forward and she had great character, “ Price said. “She always has a smile on her face.”

Although she doesn’t require a wheelchair to walk. For Vacek it adds a sense of normalness that was missing in her life. 

 “Once you get in the chair there’s nothing different about each other. You’re all in the same boat,” Vacek said. “You can talk to them about everything whenever you want. They’re your family away from home.”

Vacke has never been afraid of change. Whether it was forced upon her or something she chose. Instead, she uses it to help propel her forward and live life to the fullest.

“Being diagnosed with cancer you can’t change that. Nothing can change that,” Vacek said. “So from that you just have to move forward and live life the way you want to live it. You make the best of it.”

Ryan Ward

Ryan Ward

Ryan Ward is a producer for the “Wisconsin Life” project and can rest easy after he finally found the perfect jar of homemade dill pickles at the farmer’s market in Madison. … just like his Grandma Shirley use to make!
2018-01-19T17:52:57-06:00Tags: , , , , |

Sign Up Form

Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Get your favorite Wisconsin Life stories, meet the crew, and go behind the scenes.

Our Favorite Collections

Storyteller Rodney Lambright II's comic series about the rich relationship between a single father, his young daughter and his retirement-age parents.
For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we discover how Wisconsinites experienced the war both at home and on the battlefield.
Ice, cold and winter are an integral part of what it means to live in Wisconsin. "Ice Week" explores the many ways that ice defines us.
Food plays a central part in many holiday traditions. This series honors the foods and meals that make the day.
Escape winter with a look at some of Wisconsin's favorite sports and games.
"Living the Wisconsin Life" is an online series exploring the little things that make living in Wisconsin fun, interesting and meaningful.