Jamey Jewells has earned a life of growing opportunity through her sport of wheelchair basketball.
Coming from Donkin, N.S., where para-sport opportunities were limited earlier in her life, Jewells will be making her second Paralympic Games appearance in Rio this September and has accepted a full athletic scholarship to one of the United States’ premier NCAA wheelchair basketball programs in the fall.
Para-sport has grown substantially in Canada over the past decade, but at the time of Jewells’ injury, finding an athletic outlet for her abilities had some challenges.
“Access to adapted sports, up until about two years ago, it was a rarity generally in Nova Scotia,” said Jewells. “Cape Breton now has a sledge hockey team that is up and coming, which is really great to see. When I first started playing sports it was non-existent.”
Donkin is hidden away on the northeastern shore of Cape Breton Island with a population of little more than 500 people. Known for its deep roots in coal mining, the area was hit hard by the closure of Cape Breton’s final mine in 2001. Earlier this year, the Donkin mine was controversially revived by American coal magnate Chris Cline, who has an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion USD.
Following Jewells’ injuries in a 2003 car accident, four years passed before she was introduced to the game of wheelchair basketball in Halifax by her occupational therapist, Cher Smith. There she went on to play for the Nova Scotia Flying Wheels under Ben Marston, current para-sport coordinator for Sport Nova Scotia.
“His wife was my occupational therapist, actually,” Jewells added. “Small world.”
Since then, wheelchair basketball has taken Jewells around the country and around the world. In 2011, she played semi-professionally overseas for the Trier Dolphins, a team located along the border of Germany and Luxembourg. That same year she made her Canadian national team debut at the Osaka Cup in Japan.
Jewells made her Paralympic debut in London in 2012 where the Canadian women placed sixth. The team has fared even better internationally in recent years, culminating with a gold medal at the 2014 World Championships and silver at the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto.
With tipoff at the Rio Paralympics looming on Sept. 8th, Jewells and her teammates are dedicated to a steady approach.
“My team, we’re all about the process and we’re focused day by day, practice by practice,” she said. “It’s hard to look forward to what’s going to happen in Rio because it’s still quite a ways away.”
While Jewells doesn’t know what Rio will hold, her life beyond the 2016 Games is about to embark on a new path within the sport. She will be attending the University of Alabama where she’ll play a prominent role on the Crimson Tide’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.
“We’ve been recruiting Jamey for a couple of years now and the timing was never perfect,” said Dr. Brent Hardin, director of the University of Alabama’s Adapted Athletics. “It’s hard if you’re a national team athlete to be a college athlete also. It’s difficult, and the timing was never just right. She and I talked last year and she said ‘I don’t want to put off my education anymore, I’m ready.’”
This opportunity was open to Jewells before 2016 as well, but the option to dedicate fully to the national team ahead of Rio played a prominent role in her decision to push it back.
“For the first time in adapted sports my sport actually centralized full time,” Jewells said. “I was offered to go to Alabama twice over the last three years. Even though the quality of training would be similar — they’re both high performance environments — I felt it was most important to train with my team full time and see my coach full time as well.”
Dr. Hardin and the Alabama staff are confident that Jewells will be a key addition to one of the nation’s marquee programs. After being founded in 2003 with the birth of the Adapted Athletics department, the women’s team has won four national championships since 2009.
“There are two things that jump to mind immediately when I think about Jamey,” Hardin said. “One is her competitive spirit. I really, really like the way Jamey competes. I’ve always noticed that. She’s very fiery and she’s one of those people that, when she shows up, she shows up to compete and she shows up to win. You really need that kind of person on your team.”
Jewells says she has a love for the aggressive nature of her sport and the physical contact involved.
“I think the other thing, it goes hand-in-hand in some ways, is her leadership,” Hardin continued. “I feel like she’s really a great team leader and I think you’ll see that a little bit on Team Canada as well.”
Beyond Jewells, seven other members of the current Canadian national women’s team are former, current, or future Alabama players.
Jamey won’t be the only prominent Canadian making her debut with Alabama’s women’s team this coming season, either. Adam Lancia, a longtime star of the national men’s team who will competing in his fourth Paralympics this September, and Jewells’ husband, has been named the program’s new head coach. This developed after Jewells had already committed to the school.
“It’s a little different but it actually makes great sense for us,” Hardin said of their coaching hire. “Adam is a really great coach and he’s ready to make this move into coaching with his career. Jamey wanted to come here already. We were already recruiting Jamey to be here as a player and then when we had an opening for our head coach, Adam applied for it and everybody here on the search committee thought that it was a great fit. A perfect fit.”
Jewells plans to study social work at Alabama. She began to pursue the field of study at the Nova Scotia Community College in Cape Breton before taking time away to focus on sport.
“Sometimes things just work out the way they’re supposed to, I think,” Hardin said. Much like the perfect situation presented itself with Smith, Marston, and Jewells in Halifax nearly a decade ago, the stars are aligning again for Jewells in Brazil and Alabama.
Photo Credits: Canadian Paralympic Committee