BlazeSports teams up with Atlanta Hawks

They are creating the first women’s wheelchair basketball team in Georgia

For three years, Maggie Frederick traveled from Atlanta to Birmingham for a chance to play on a women’s wheelchair basketball team.

Now, she doesn’t have to.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

BlazeSports America, the legacy organization of the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, is expanding its long relationship with the Atlanta Hawks and creating Georgia’s only women’s wheelchair basketball team, the Lady Ballers.

Frederick, a guard on the new team, is excited. She has fond memories of playing coed youth basketball with BlazeSports.

“At school, I was the only kid in a wheelchair,” said Frederick, born with the congenital disability spina bifida. “Being at Blaze gave me a safe place, a sense of belonging, and a place where I felt – for the lack of a better term – normal.”

The 15-member Lady Ballers team, launching its first season this month, is diverse in age, disabilities, and experience.

Female players age eight and older were invited to join, which puts youngsters playing alongside women their grandmother’s age. Right now, team members range in age from 15 to 69 and have disabilities that include spinal cord injuries, paralysis, amputations and visual impairment.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The skill level of the players varies. Some are veterans of the sport, such as Frederick, 32, of Duluth. Others are new to the game, including Carrie Willoughby, 45, of Sandy Springs. Willoughby, legally blind from a rare, inherited, pigment-stripping disease called oculocutaneous albinism, has been involved in other sports, just not wheelchair basketball. She competed in swimming in the Paralympics in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, and in the 2004 games in Athens, Greece.

Jon Babul, the Hawks’ vice president of corporate social responsibility and basketball programs, said the Lady Ballers is “an awesome initiative to support.

“I hope other professional sports teams will follow because it really is a ground-breaking movement having an all-female wheelchair basketball team,” he said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Dawn Churi, executive director of BlazeSports, estimates that there are 15 to 16 women’s wheelchair basketball teams in the country, including three in the Southeast: Birmingham, Charlotte and now Atlanta.

“There are women who will want to play on coed teams. But they’ve never even had the opportunity to play on a female team if they wanted,” Churi said. “We want to open that door.”

Being on an all-women’s team has been shown to build self-esteem, Churi said. And having players of varying ages creates opportunities for some “amazing mentorship,” she said.

The Hawks have supported BlazeSports junior wheelchair program for about seven years – donating money for team equipment, travel, and uniforms and sponsoring Blaze’s annual Big Peach Slam Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, one of the largest tournaments of its kind in the nation, Churi said.

When the nonprofit began looking at starting an all-female team, the Hawks leadership “immediately jumped on board,” Churi said. The Hawks are providing the new team with money for uniforms, equipment, travel and facility expenses, she said.

Mara Cunningham, community basketball program manager for the Hawks, is volunteering to coach the Lady Ballers. “That speaks volumes to our desire to help,” Babul said.

Frederick works with the Sandy Springs Parks and Recreation Department and coaches the BlazeSports youth track team in her spare time. She played three seasons with the woman’s wheelchair basketball team in Birmingham. She’d decided last year to quit that team because of the expense involved – only to learn that the Hawks and BlazeSports were teaming up to create the Lady Ballers.

“I think there is, to some extent, an advantage in the ladies’ team,” Frederick said. “It does add a safer space for women who might not have an equal chance if they were on a coed team.”

She is expecting good things from the team’s relationship with the Hawks.

“A lot of people don’t know wheelchair sports are a thing,” she said. “Having the Hawks’ name tied to our program is unbelievable. It will be really helpful in spreading the word.”

Willoughby said she has endured teasing and ridicule all of her life because of her condition, which left her legally blind.

“I just always strived to do better and try harder, and it paid off in my athletics,” said Willoughby, who finished all five of her events at the Paralympics in Athens and ranked 8th or better in the world in swimming.

Complicating the challenge of being legally blind, she woke up one day in 2021 with excruciating pain in her back and could no longer feel her legs. She was permanently paralyzed from what doctors said they thought was a virus.

She became involved in BlazeSports in 2002-2003 and has been in awe of how the nonprofit “motivates kids to be involved in sports, explore, and try new things.”

In joining the Lady Ballers, Willoughby welcomes the chance to rekindle a friendship with Frederick, whom she coached in swimming years ago at BlazeSports.

She said she’s psyched about being a part of the team.

“It will provide a platform for us to talk about women’s sports, about working together, and about using strengths and weaknesses to bring each other up.”

Learn more about the Lady Ballers at blazesports.org/lady-ballers.