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Berkley parks and rec director fulfills dream at Paralympics

October 9, 2012

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Berkley Parks and Recreation Director Tom Colwell, right, enjoys a moment with longtime friend and fellow U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball coach Dan Price before they enter the stadium for the closing ceremony at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

BERKLEY — Tom Colwell finds the experience of winning a bronze medal for his country on the largest international stage difficult to put into words.

As one of the assistant coaches for the U.S. wheelchair basketball team at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London last month, Berkley’s parks and recreation director knew that he had reached the culmination of one of his life’s greatest passions. Still, he struggles to describe the sheer enormity of it all.

“It was unbelievable — just absolutely amazing,” Colwell said. “There were 80,000 people in the stands for the opening and closing ceremonies cheering us on as we walked into the stadium. A typical wheelchair basketball game that I coach has maybe 100 people in the stands, but almost 13,000 people watched us play our bronze medal game. As a coach, I’ve been to so many different tournaments, but this was really the pinnacle of everything I’ve worked for.”

At that bronze medal game, Team USA defeated Great Britain 61-46 to earn its first spot on the podium since the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. The 12-man squad, which includes three players originally from Michigan, was also able to avenge its loss at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where the Brits topped the Americans to earn bronze and shut Team USA out of a medal. The icing on the cake was that the American team managed to achieve this feat in London, on the British squad’s home soil, with thousands of screaming fans trying to power their compatriots to victory.

While Colwell had hoped to bring home the first gold medal in wheelchair basketball for the U.S. men since 1988, his feelings of national pride and honor far outweigh any lingering disappointment.

“You can’t go to a competition like this with the expectation of anything less than winning a gold medal,” he said. “But our main goal was always to go out and represent our country, our sport, our families, our hometowns and ourselves. That’s really what the Paralympics are all about.”

Colwell, 43, grew up in Minnesota and has been coaching wheelchair basketball for more than 20 years. He was first introduced to the sport as a counselor at Camp Courage in Maple Lake, Minn. — which provides camping programs for disabled kids and adults — in the summer of 1990.

He immediately fell in love with coaching and has been a coach at the international level since 1997, taking junior and adult teams to tournaments in faraway locations such as Australia, Brazil, England and Cyprus. He even met his wife, Noelle — a fellow wheelchair basketball coach who served as an assistant coach on the U.S. Women’s National Team at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens — at a basketball tournament in Philadelphia in 1998.

Colwell has also coached two teams at the local level: the Michigan Junior Thunderbirds, based out of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, and the Detroit RIM Diehards, based out of the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit. He has worked for the Berkley Parks and Recreation Department since moving to Michigan in July 2006, and he was promoted to director last summer.

Berkley city officials were thoroughly impressed with Colwell’s success at the Paralympics. “We couldn’t be more proud of Tom and his amazing accomplishment,” said City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa. “This was truly the opportunity of a lifetime for him. He is extremely dedicated to this sport, and he has always done a great job of balancing his time between his professional life and his personal life.”

Mayor Phil O’Dwyer agreed. “It is a great honor for the city of Berkley to have our parks and rec director represent the U.S. at the Paralympics,” he said. “It’s a special achievement to win a bronze medal, and we are all very proud of him. Beyond that, we take great inspiration from these players, who play the game of basketball with tremendous energy, pride and passion. They are a model for all of us to follow about facing and overcoming life’s challenges.”

But as Colwell pointed out, the athletes do not necessarily see themselves this way. They don’t consider what they do to be any different from what other top competitors do — they just so happen to play basketball from a wheelchair, rather than while running and jumping.

“These athletes just want to go out and compete and be the best they possibly can be at their sport,” Colwell said. “What was really cool about London was that people were mostly asking us about the game itself, rather than focusing on the disabilities of the players. Ordinarily, you don’t go to too many of these events where the stands are jam-packed with people who genuinely care about this sport, but the people in London were true fans.”

The Paralympics may have been a whirlwind experience for Colwell, but he feels fortunate that he was able to take it all in with a longtime friend at his side. Dan Price, whom Colwell began coaching with in Minnesota in 1992, also made the trip to London after he was brought on board as an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team. As the two friends participated in the opening and closing ceremonies together, Colwell said, it was as if they had come full circle, just as their coaching careers were hitting their peak.

Colwell may still have a hard time finding words that capture his unforgettable journey to London, but that’s perfectly OK. He was there, he lived through it, and it was an experience that he would not trade for anything else.

“The whole thing was really awe-inspiring,” he said. “The feeling of pride that you get from this means so much more than just representing the United States. You’re paying tribute to all those who have worn that uniform before you, and hopefully you’re also laying the groundwork for future generations of athletes.”

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