Like the other athletes competing in the UCO Endeavor Games, Karina Keck is an overcomer.
Keck, 18, was born in Lithuania with spina bifida, a birth defect that involves the incomplete development of the spinal cord or its coverings. It occurs at the end of the first month of pregnancy when the two sides of the embryo’s spine fail to join, leaving an open area.
The condition is usually detected before a baby is born and treated right away. Causes are largely unknown.
Karina, who was adopted and came the U.S. when she was 7 years old, can only walk short distances without a wheelchair. Though walking might be difficult for her, she has grace, stealth and speed on a basketball court with her wheelchair basketball team — the Tulsa Jammers.
When she started playing, she didn’t know how good she would be.
“Once I started playing, I felt good about myself,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I may have a disability, but I’m thankful for it, because I wouldn’t be able to be doing this if I didn’t have my disability. I’d probably be into sports, but not as well as I am now.”
Last year, Karina was asked to travel to Argentina with other top U.S. players to showcase 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball, her specialty. In preparation, Tulsa Jammers coach Raymond Bradford conducted extra practices with her.
Friday morning, Karina and her teammates were at the University of Central Oklahoma Wellness Center, where 3-on-3 wheelchair basketball competition in the 15th annual UCO Endeavor Games was underway on multiple courts. The games are for athletes with physical disabilities.
It’s serious competition, which requires strength, stamina, skill, communication and effort. The game has its own rules too. In addition to coaches, some players had family members cheering for them.
“Basketball is what I’m good at. That’s my life,” she said between games. “And that’s all I want to do. When I’m on the court, I’m just playin’. Yeah, it’s competition, but it’s also fun at the same time. I get to be around everyone like me, and no one feels left out.”
Karina said the feeling of unity due to shared experiences extends beyond teams to other fellow athletes at the games. This year marks her 10th time to be part of the UCO Endeavor Games.
Nick Baker, father of Karina’s teammate Dru Baker, said it’s a great experience for all the players to be able to compete, especially for his daughter to get involved with athletics.
“It’s really good for them to gain a lot of self-worth, self-confidence, build their strength,” Nick said. “It’s very impressive what they all can do.”
Dru, 12, who has been partially paralyzed from just below her chest down since she was 4 years old, is also competing in several track and field events including the javelin.
“To see what the future could bring for her to be able to do some things on her own, become more independent, it’s not only good for me to see but also for her to see as she gets older and stronger,” Nick said.
Team manager DeAnna VanBecelaere, mother of Tulsa Jammers player Kirstie VanBecelaere, 16, helps the coach with various needs as they arise. Watching her daughter and the other players compete and get stronger is rewarding, DeAnna said.
“When they first start they can’t even make a basket, but the coach will say if they try it counts in practice,” she said. “So they really catch on quickly. It’s great to see that they have other peers with disabilities and everybody competing and cheering when they make a basket.”
Other events scheduled to begin Friday included powerlifting, outdoor archery and the 20K cycling event, which was delayed due to the morning rain that drenched much of the metro area. Events today include track and field, outdoor archery and sitting volleyball. Sunday events include the paratriathlon and more track and field.
FOR MORE information about the UCO Endeavor Games, visit http://www.uco.edu/wellness/sr/endeavor/index.asp.