Fort Wayne’s Shelby Gruss makes U.S. wheelchair world championship team

Shelby Gruss

As every morning she rolls her wheelchair onto the basketball court for a solo workout session, Shelby Gruss finds ways to push herself to maintain intensity.

“I just have to think about the opportunity I have,” Gruss said. “It’s pretty motivating to get up and get going. I’m pretty self-aware of when I’m not pushing myself as hard as I can. `You’re slacking off today. You need to push yourself more.’ I try to keep my stats and stuff on things. Four days in a row where I’m below normal or average I’ll tell myself, `You really are slacking, just get it going.’ ”

There haven’t been too many slow days, though, and now she has motivation for even more. Last week the Bishop Luers graduate was named to the United States women’s team for this summer’s International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Women’s World Championships in Hamburg, Germany.

It’s been an incredible journey. As an 18-year-old senior in 2010, Gruss was attempting a big air jump while snowboarding over Christmas break in Ohio. The board flipped from under and she landed on her shoulder and upper back, breaking the T8 and dislocating the T9 vertebrae, paralyzing her from the waist down.

She rebuilt her life and her game, studying and playing at the University of Illinois. Now working on her doctorate in plant breeding and genetics at Purdue, Gruss played for the U.S. at the World Cup in Columbia last summer, winning a silver medal and qualifying the team for the world championships, but she keeps building new goals.

So every morning she goes to the gym to attempt at least 350 shots. She’s by herself. It’s something of a return to her roots as a wheelchair player.

“The first time I ever tried out for the USA was in 2013, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for it at all so it was more to see what I would have to do to get there. I got invited back two more times during the Rio quadrant, and last year was the first year I made it and this year I made it again. Now there’s competition to stay on the team. Worlds is right around the corner so you can’t relax.”

Ever since she was hurt, Gruss has rarely relaxed. She learned how to play a different form of basketball at Turnstone. She had to relearn how to do something she loved.

“It was two years after I got hurt, and I sucked,” she said. “It was fun, but I couldn’t shoot very far. I was struggling. Even just pushing my chair, I couldn’t move very efficiently at all. I was simply trying to be accepting of everything at the time. I enjoyed it because I stuck to it, but I had no idea how far I could come from there to now.

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“I wanted to be good, but it was weird. I wanted to be good, but at the time I thought, `I’ll just do it for fun, and if I suck, I suck.’ In comparison to now, it’s a world of difference. ”

She credits Turnstone for teaching her about opportunities and for helping her understand her condition, and now she has a chance to be one of the best wheelchair players in the world if she continues to push to new levels.

Because she’s only been playing for 5 1/2 years, Gruss is technically still a very young player in wheelchair basketball. She’s still learning to perfect reacting and thinking the game in a different way, honing her instincts which also means she’s still improving. There’s still the motivation of making the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

“It’s crazy how things worked out,” she said. “I didn’t know this was going to be an option at all when I got hurt. I never knew the scale where wheelchair basketball could take me.

“I’m just trying to live my life to the best I possibly can. If I inspire people along the way, that’s great.”

So every morning she rolls her chair into the gym to start over.

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