Art of rebounding
HUDSON, Ohio — When people ask Will Waller what circumstances put him in a wheelchair, he explains it was the result of a spinal cord injury from a gunshot wound.
Almost invariably, he finds, they'll want to think the best. Was he, they ask, an innocent bystander caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Waller can't lie.
"No, I wasn't a bystander," the Chicago native says. "I was ... sort of in the mix."
Now 38 and a human resources executive with Goodyear Tire Co., Waller was 18 and a member of a gang when a bullet took away his ability to walk.
"I grew up in a really tough neighborhood in the city, and I kind of went down the path that was a common path for a lot of kids," he said.
At the time, it was difficult not to be bitter. Difficult not to be scared and depressed about what an uncertain future might hold for a teenager who would be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Years later, the University of Illinois graduate had his answer.
"It was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "The more time that goes on in my life and the more I'm able to realize my potential, the more I realize it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
"It's something that has opened more doors for me in a wheelchair than I ever would have had opened for me (by) remaining in the city."
Forced off the dangerous path he was taking, Waller emerged from that 1992 shooting to build a life of which he's justifiably proud. He went on to earn two degrees from the UI. He's been a senior executive with two international corporations, including Westinghouse. He's a family man, with three children.
And he's one of the most successful wheelchair athletes the United States has ever produced. When the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Paralympics are held Aug. 29 in London, Waller will be representing his country as captain of the U.S. men's wheelchair basketball team.
"I'm probably not going to be the top scorer on the team," said the second-oldest player on the roster. "But I'm going to be a guy who's going to do a lot of the dirty work, a lot of the leading on the court and in the locker room.
"Those are some of the strengths I've kind of always brought to the table. Now, as a veteran, I think the expectation is that I do even more of that."
In the aftermath of his shooting, Waller enrolled at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago. At the same time, he was made aware of the resources available to him through the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
When Waller learned that RIC sponsored a wheelchair basketball team, he signed on.
"One of the things that helped me kind of snap out of depression — or whatever you want to call it — was getting involved in wheelchair sports," he said.
Once he got the hang of basketball on wheels, Waller showed he had some skills. And when RIC played in tournaments that included college teams, other coaches took notice. Brad Hedrick, then the UI coach, began recruiting Waller. So did current Illini men's wheelchair coach Mike Frogley, who at that time was coaching Wisconsin-Whitewater's team.
"He was clearly a tremendous diamond-in-the-rough talent," said Hedrick, now the director of the UI Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services. "However, I was most impressed by his determination to change the course of his life.
"We had a frank talk about what he would have to do to get into Illinois and that it would not be easy. We discussed the importance of him getting out of Chicago and starting anew."
Waller was undaunted by the process, which included first transferring to Parkland College in Champaign to earn more credits and beef up his grade-point average. By January 1996, he was accepted into the UI, where he would earn an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's in human resources and industrial relations.
"It all made sense," Waller said of his decision. "A Big Ten university (and) really the longest-standing wheelchair sports program with a lot of infrastructure behind it made it an attractive draw for me."
Time to shine
The "diamond in the rough" quickly became a polished gem.
By 1997, Waller was named to the U.S. National Team. The following year, after helping the UI win the national intercollegiate tournament title, Waller and his Team USA mates returned from the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation World Championship with a gold medal.
Waller no longer was merely a top collegiate player but shining on the world stage.
"Will was tall, ambidextrous and very athletic," Hedrick said. "He was also very quick for his size and an excellent ball handler for a big. Defensively, he could always be counted on to defend the opponent's biggest players, who frequently outweighed him by 50 pounds. ... No one could outwork or outhustle Will Waller."
Between 1998 and 2002, Waller would play for two Illini national title teams, help the U.S. twice earn gold medals at world championships and play for an America's Cup champion.
He also would experience the thrill of being a Paralympian, traveling to Sydney in 2000 and helping Team USA claim bronze.
It was an amazing run for a one-time gang member seemingly bound for nowhere.
"Brad Hedrick was a guy who took a shot on a guy ... who came from a troubled background, and he was willing to give me a chance to learn what my potential was and fulfill my potential," Waller said. "I'll always have a huge debt of gratitude to the program. I learned how to be a leader through it."
But life was moving swiftly for Waller by this point.
In December 2000, he completed his master's degree. A professional career was calling.
So was family life. In 2003, Waller and former Illini women's basketball player Kylie Martin became engaged and married the following year. On May 12, 2006, the first of their three children was born. Will's Paralympic background served as inspiration to name their daughter Sydney.
Considering all that he had accomplished in wheelchair basketball, did he really want to continue putting in the time and the sweat to continue? Waller decided no.
"At some point, you wonder what else is there?" he said.
In search of gold
Waller eventually would have his answer.
In 2008, he left Westinghouse for Goodyear, which has its corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio. After the move, Waller learned of a local wheelchair basketball team. He couldn't resist checking it out. And then joining.
"I really wanted to get back out there in order to basically stay in shape, have a little fun," he said.
What Waller discovered, however, was that he still could play the game at a high level. And he relished the competition. Other than being older, it was like nothing had changed since he'd walked away from the U.S. National Team following the 2002 World Championships.
"The competitive juices were flowing again," Waller said. "You learn how much you miss the sport and how much you love the sport that's done so much for you."
In 2009, he tried out for the U.S. National Team along with about 75 other candidates. Waller made the cut. By 2010, the returning veteran was named captain of the U.S. team that won a bronze at the World Championships in Birmingham, England.
Waller wasn't about to stop there. A driving force in his decision to rejoin Team USA was to attain the one goal that has eluded him.
"A Paralympic gold medal," he said.
Waller's quest — and that of his teammates — begins Sept. 2, when the Americans face Turkey in a pool-play opener.
"It's a young team that needs some direction, some leadership," the team captain said. "It's my opportunity to give back."