Quick learner

Quick learner

When Joshua Pierce arrived in the United States on Dec. 9, 2017, he was faced with adjusting to a new family, a new country and culture, and a new language.

Within a week, he was also learning a new sport.

At the orphanage where he lived in China, he would sometimes play basketball in his wheelchair in PE class. But he hadn’t learned the technical skills of the game and there was no team to join.

Blog PhotoJoshua was adopted by Bryan and Sue Pierce of Champaign. Some friends of the family have a son who plays on a Peoria-based wheelchair basketball team, and he encouraged Joshua to get involved.

“He started right after he got here,” Bryan Pierce said.

Joshua likes having teammates and a coach who can guide him.

“When I was in China, I wasn’t shooting very well,” he said.

Joshua said his coach helped him change his form so he was holding the ball higher, rather than at chest level, and also showed him how to move his wheelchair against a defender.

The Peoria Wildcats team has players from Peoria, Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana, and Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation has partnered with the Wildcats with the aim of finding more local athletes to participate and eventually creating a new team in C-U.

When Joshua joined the Wildcats, he began practicing with high school seniors that had been been playing for years and were being recruited to collegiate programs.

Blog Photo“Needless to say, practices were tough and meant to challenge even advanced players,” said Rachel Voss, a Champaign Park District employee and an assistant coach for the Wildcats who works with the Champaign-Urbana athletes. But even though Joshua was new to the sport, he was keeping up with the best players on the team right away.

“He had more raw potential than any rookie player I had ever seen,” Voss said.

Joshua was ready to learn and quickly picked up on defensive concepts while watching his first game. He put them into practice during his time on the floor, Voss said.

Joshua played with the team that won a March Madness state tournament and finished eighth at a national championship tournament in Louisville in April.

Voss believes that if Joshua continues to play through high school and college, he could be one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the world.

He has been a participant for the past several days at the UI wheelchair sports program’s basketball camp. The UI camps are among the best in the country, attracting participants with a wide range of experience. Before attending the camp, Joshua finished a week at the UI wheelchair track camp.

“I’ve learned more about how to go faster and how I can use the racing chair, and I’m making more friends,” he said. “I want to go fast and be strong.”

Blog PhotoHis interest in track grew out of his participation in the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon Relay in April. He had never sat in a racing wheelchair until the afternoon before the event. He completed almost 7 miles during the relay, wearing a bicycle helmet and gardening gloves to protect his hands. He crossed the finish line with his parents, who both ran in the relay; his adoptive brother, Andrew; and a family friend who also ran a leg of the relay.

The Pierces had been unable to find a racing chair for Joshua to use in the relay when marathon race directors Jan Seeley and Mike Lindemann referred them to Adam Bleakney, the head coach of the UI wheelchair track team.

Bleakney offered an attachment that turns an everyday wheelchair into a racing chair.

“(Joshua) had never been in a (racing) chair before and he wouldn’t understand the biomechanics. It’s a very steep learning curve. It’s a pretty nuanced skill that takes some time to learn,” Bleakney said.

But the attachment wouldn’t work with the type of chair Joshua had, so Bleakney found a racing chair for him to try.

“He got in there and immediately was doing 180s in this chair,” Bleakney said.

During the track camp this summer, the coach worked with Joshua on basic skills that beginners need to learn, especially chair control.

“Just holding a straight line takes some degree of skill because environmental factors are pulling you off line, whether it’s a crosswind or the camber of the road. New athletes will typically push harder with one hand than the other and will move in the direction their dominant arm is pushing them,” Bleakney said.

Blog PhotoOther skills beginners learn at the camp include navigating a turn on a track; using the correct motion in pushing the chair by following the curvature of the ring rather than an up-and-down motion used for an everyday chair; and understanding the mechanics of the equipment.

“He’s really come a long way,” Bleakney said of Joshua. “He’s so green and new to sport, he’s very raw in terms of his ability to move the chair and maneuver it, but those raw materials as a coach you’d like to see, he has all those -- great upper body strength and awareness and incredible hand speed.”

Sue and Bryan Pierce are grateful for the support they’ve received from Bleakney and others in the community, including friends from their church, the home schooling community and local Asian families.

“The folks around here have offered help and support way more than I would have thought or imagined,” Bryan Pierce said. “We have run across so many good positive role models -- coaches and older kids, like the kids on the UI wheelchair track team. Maybe they’re Paralympians, maybe they’re world-class athletes, and they’re out there cheering on 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids. With that kind of support and role models, who knows what some of these younger kids may turn out to be.”

“We’re amazed at his talents, and we’re very proud of him,” Sue Pierce said of Joshua.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.


Photos, from top: Joshua Pierce and his dad Bryan work out together Tuesday at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. Andrew Pierce follows his brother Joshua on his bicycle. The gardening gloves Joshua used in the Illinois Marathon Relay, and the medals he received for the relay and the state and national basketball tournaments he played in with the Peoria Wildcats. The Pierces: Andrew, Joshua, Bryan and Sue. Photos by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette


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