Carlee Hoffman - two gold medals!
One of the wonderful things about sport is that sometimes it can truly provide life-changing experiences and create opportunities that go beyond what a young athlete might even dare to dream. While we cannot speak to the dreams of Carlee Hoffman, a 2004 graduate of South Christian, it might be safe to say that the fact that she has gone all over the country and the world playing wheelchair basketball was not something she envisioned a few years ago.
In her travels to Greece and China as a Paralympic athlete she has managed to pick up two gold medals as a member of the US women’s wheelchair basketball team. Her basketball skills had two Universities fighting for her attention and offering full ride scholarships – she chose the University of Illinois over the University of Arizona because she wanted to sharpen her skills under the tutelage of coach Michael Frogley. Carlee walked with her classmates at U of I in May, but she will not officially get her diploma until she completes her upcoming internship. We have to admit that our jaw dropped when Carlee filled us in on the details of her internship; she will be spending several months on the West Bank in Gaza working with Mercy Corps, a non-profit group, and the Palestinian Paralympic Committee to develop a wheelchair basketball program there.
Hoffman majored in Recreation Sport and Tourism Management, so she is not going to Israel to make nice and shoot some hoops. Her primary focus is to help the Palestinians develop a coaching program, but she will also develop some fundraising options and help draft a strategic plan for the next five years. Hoffman credited coach Frogley with helping her land this fantastic opportunity. She spent a week with the Palestinians in early November. She and Matt Buchie, an assistant coach at the U of I, put on a week long camp for adult players. Carlee related that many of the players didn’t even have the proper equipment. Wheelchairs designed for basketball and other sports typically have a fifth wheel located in the back to keep the chair from tipping over. Several of the Palestinian players had regular chairs with four wheels and found themselves on their backs during practice sessions. Carlee realizes that she will have her work cut out for her during her internship, but she is very excited about the possibility of turning it into a job.
“I hope that if their funding allows it and I like it there, that I could stay there and keep working,” Hoffman said.
The road to Paralympic gold and the Gaza strip began for Carlee when she lost both legs below the knee in a lawn mower accident when she was three years old. Nothing keeps Carlee down; in no time at all she had mastered the use of her prosthetic legs and was shooting hoops. She was so active that she often was invited to talk to amputees at Mary Freebed to demonstrate the possibilities of life with prosthetics. During one of those visits she met Chris Kommer from Byron Center who had been injured in a boating accident.
When surgery put her on crutches in her freshman year which meant she would miss the basketball season, Kommer suggested that she check out the Grand Rapids Junior Pacers – a wheelchair basketball team he was playing for.
Carlee made the transition to playing in a chair quickly. It is important to know that everything on a wheelchair basketball court is the same – the net is ten feet off the ground and the three point circle is the same distance. Carlee had to adjust her game to shooting from a seated position.
“Free throws were frustrating for me at first,” Carlee recalled. “But now I am putting in three pointers.”
Playing with the Pacers allowed Carlee to really step up her game. She played with them all through high school and then moved on to the University of Illinois. She explained that there are nine Universities across the country with strong wheelchair basketball programs. She also outlined how every wheelchair player is given a point classification from 1.0 to 4.5 based on several criteria such as type of injury, how much of the upper body can be used, limb functions, etc. Carlee is a 4.0 and she told us that teams are allowed no more than 14 points on the court at any one time to keep things fair.
When she traveled with the US team to Athens in 2004, Carlee was the youngest member of the twelve women on the team at 18 years old. She had no international playing experience, but nevertheless “played quite a bit” throughout the tournament. The US lost to Australia during pool play, but won every game after that which had them facing the Aussies in the finals for the gold. Carlee managed to get in the record books when she was fouled and put in a free throw to help her team win.
Fast forward to the games in China earlier this year. Carlee, at 22, was the second youngest member of the team, but she brought a lot more experience with her. The US girls faced Germany and the Germans had them down by 14 points after the first quarter. The coach put Carlee and her crew on the floor and they trimmed the Germans lead to just 4 points by the half. The US team ended up winning the game and eventually went to the podium undefeated.
“We were really deep this year compared to 2004,” Carlee commented. “Really deep and really versatile – it made it really fun.”
Even though she now has two Paralympic gold medals, Carlee is not sure she will be competing again in 2012. She is taking time off from b-ball to concentrate on her career. Even if she is not hired on in Palestine, Carlee is confident the time she spends there could very well open other doors for her.
Carlee is the youngest child of Dave and June Hoffman. Her older sister Bree is married and she and her husband Brian are responsible for Carlee’s favorite nephews: Zack and Jarrett. She also has an older brother, Reed, and is quick to point out how important the whole group is to her.
“I have a great family – they have been supportive of me all the time – they are my support system,” Hoffman concluded.
Carlee Hoffman is someone special – her enthusiasm for life and her fellow man comes across loud and clear. She serves as a vibrant testimony to maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity. We can’t wait to hear a report from her after her internship in Israel.