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Army veteran pushes limits at Invictus

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By ANNETTE GOMES

U.S. Army veteran Sgt. Brandi Evans is always up for a challenge.

A long time sports enthusiast, the Colorado native played volleyball, basketball and ran track much of her life. Her active and athletic lifestyle was placed in jeopardy in 2003 when she was hit by a car while crossing the street, fracturing her hip and shattering her right knee. She spent three months
in a wheelchair and
14 more in physical therapy.

“At one point, my doctor told me that
my new sports would include golf, biking and swimming,”
Evans said. “I was like, ‘You are kidding, right?’”

Evans laughed as she recounted the
conversation with her doctor. She would go on to learn the hard way that he was partially right.

She has had three revisions to her full knee replacement since the doctor told her about her new sports. However, Evans has since discovered a new way to play the sports she’s been
playing her whole life and not have to keep reinjuring herself.

“Adaptive sports saved my joints. It was an accident that I ended up in adaptive sports and I never imagined doing some of the things I have done in this program,” said Evans. “After my accident, I was in a wheelchair for four months before my hip healed. I thought, ‘How hard could adjusting to adaptive sports be,’ particularly wheelchair basketball. It was definitely a challenge.”

Evans would go on to embrace the challenge as she began practicing on the court.

“I just keep pushing through. Earlier this year at Operation Rebound Camp, I was struggling with ball handling. I thought maybe I didn’t have the right coordination to be a good ball player. I had to really think if wheelchair basketball was something I should continue playing,” recalled Evans. “I ultimately decided to stick with it and just worked more and more at it every day until I felt a little more confident handling the ball.”

Evans’ confidence level grew as she continued to work on her game. That hard work was rewarded when she found out she was named to the Team U.S. wheelchair basketball team to compete at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. She was notably the only female on the team.

“I was nervous about playing wheelchair basketball [at Invictus Games]. I was playing with National Wheelchair Basketball Association players, an athlete that plays competitively in France, and against Paralympians, so I just started worrying about whether or not I could keep up with these guys,” Evans said.

Not only did she keep up, she contributed valuable minutes and points as Team U.S. went on to beat the Netherlands for the gold medal.

“We couldn’t believe it. We played the Netherlands earlier that week and we won by about 20 points. I have to say Netherlands really wanted gold just like we did,” Evans said. “The whole game, we were going back and forth. I know that we kept the celebrities and Prince Harry on their toes. It was amazing to see the faces in the crowd and to know that we had the support of all those wonderful people cheering for us.”

Evans continued celebrating last week as it was announced she will be playing with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Arizona Storm for their 2017-18 season. She said the support she received on the road has been overwhelming.

“I’m at a loss for words. I played at a tournament in Arizona in March with the El Paso Air Wheelers. I played against some amazing women, some Paralympians,” Evans said.

After the tournament, at which Evans was once again the only female on the team, she started getting calls to play with women’s wheelchair basketball teams.

She credits Cruz Gutierrez, her mentor and an advocate for people with sports disabilities and fellow Air Wheelers teammate, for helping her prepare for the Warrior Games and Invictus Games.

“If it wasn’t for Cruz asking me to go to that tournament earlier this year, I would not be where I am today,” Evans said. “He took a chance on a rookie, and he pushes me to give it my all and push through. The opportunities I have awaiting me have opened because of the adaptive sports program and Cruz. I am forever grateful to him.”

Evans attended a three-day camp over the summer at the University of Arizona where Jenn Poist, a Team U.S. Paralympian, was assisting coaches. As expected, the camp had plenty of talent, and Evans learned a great deal about the game and herself.

“I have met some amazing athletes that challenge me to push myself harder. You can only get better when you push yourself,” she said.

When Evans trains and competes, she said she thinks about all of her friends. She also finds motivation from her husband, Todd, and her kids, who have supported her through it all. She considers herself lucky to have walked away from that pedestrian accident.

“Many of my friends can’t stand up, and they struggle everyday with debilitating injuries or illnesses,” she said. “I am so excited for this new journey, but sometimes it doesn’t seem real. I love this sport and I have been working hard to get better. I’ve been through a lot, but others have been through much more.

“As the great basketball coach John Wooden said, ‘don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,’ so I continue to push on and learn just how much I can do.”