Given Back The Game She Had Lost, Wheelchair Basketball’s Natalie Schneider Isn’t Ready To Call It A Day
by Steve Goldberg
There was a time when Natalie Schneider didn’t care much for basketball. Growing up in Nebraska, her father was a coach, and the whole family would attend his games. While her mom, brother and sister sat by and watched the action on the court, young Natalie turned her back and colored.
“Even when I hated going, I still had to go,” she recalled. “I didn’t like watching basketball.”
Things changed in a big way in second grade, when someone finally handed her a ball.
“When I actually started playing it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun,’” Schneider said.
It was game on from that point.
Though running basketball later turned to wheelchair basketball, Schneider never stopped playing. At age 40, she is now a four-time Paralympian — and two-time champ — in the sport, and this month she leads the U.S. women’s team in the 2023 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, where they’ll aim to not just improve upon the silver medal they won four years ago but also earn a spot at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, which they can do with a win.
Schneider is a co-captain for the experienced U.S. team that includes three-time Paralympians Becca Murray, the other co-captain, and Rose Hollermann, as well as seven other players from the team that won a bronze medal at the 2022 world championships roster. Eight of the 12 were on the Tokyo 2020 team.
“We have a really solid mix,” boasts Schneider. “I haven’t seen this much depth on the USA team since 2008, so that’s really exciting.”
When she began falling for the game, Schneider was first drawn to the fast pace, and how she could lose herself on the court.
“I’m actually very analytical. I’m a math person,” she said. “Basketball is sort of my escape from that where I can just like react and do what’s natural instead of overanalyzing things.”
A native of Ord, Nebraska, Schneider played into high school, and as a sophomore she helped her team reach the state tournament. The future looked bright for her and her team, until everything suddenly changed.
Schneider’s dad, who taught German at the high school along with his coaching duties, chaperoned a student trip to Germany. The family tagged along, but while there all the walking began to aggravate Schneider’s leg in a way far more painful than anything she had experienced. When she returned home and hit the gym, running and up and down the court elicited extreme pain.
“I was 16. It was summer after my sophomore year of high school that I was diagnosed with
cancer in my right femur,” she said, her voice going somber.
“It took forever for the doctor to come in, and when he finally came in he said, ‘I’m pretty confident that you have a malignant tumor in your leg,’” she recalled. “At that time, I didn’t even know what malignant meant. He proceeded to say that you’re going to have to do chemotherapy and surgery, and you’re not going to be able to run or jump again.”
This was not what she expected to hear.
“I was just shocked because I thought I was going to go in, get some quick surgery, be out for a few weeks and then come back,” she said. “Instead, I was told I’d never run or jump or play basketball again. That was more devastating to me than the cancer diagnosis was.
“The state basketball tournament was actually the last official basketball game I ever got to play.”
Or so she thought.
After her surgery, Schneider’s first foray back into sports was in sitting volleyball. And she was good at it, so much so that she earned an invitation to a national team camp. However, all the twisting in that sport hurt her knee.
When a couple of the guys on her volleyball team asked if she wanted to try wheelchair hoops, Schneider was initially concerned that her ability to walk would disqualify her. Not an issue, they assured her, and soon enough she was a member of the Madonna Magic, a team from in Lincoln, Nebraska, that played in the NWBA’s second division.
“I showed up to my first practice and we scrimmaged for three hours straight. I had probably 15 blisters on my hands, and I just loved it,” Schneider said. “I loved it. It was so fun. (There’s) just a different kind of camaraderie in basketball that I had really missed from playing. I mean, I played my whole life until all of a sudden, I was told I couldn’t play anymore.”
Schneider, who graduated from Nebraska in 2007, soon turned her focus entirely to basketball, and by 2008 she made her first Paralympic team, where she helped the Americans win a gold medal in Beijing.
Early on, Schneider thought she might go for Beijing and maybe London 2012, and then retire to start a family. And she indeed had a baby after London, but then competed in Rio. As Schneider’s family has grown to include three daughters — ages 6, 8 and 10 — she’s continued to tease the idea of retirement, only to come back for more.
“It’s just been a continuous cycle,” said Schneider, who won another gold medal in Rio and a bronze in Tokyo, “but this time, after Paris I swear I’m done. I’m totally done after Paris.”
First, however, Team USA must qualify, which it will aim to do in Chile.
Four years ago, in Lima, Peru, the U.S. fell to Canada by three points in the gold-medal game. Those teams remain the favorites in Santiago, though Team USA earned a higher finish at both the 2020 Paralympics and the 2022 world championships — taking the bronze medal in both, while Canada was fifth in both.
For Schneider, who was recently honored as the 2023 Women’s Sports Foundation’s Team Sportswoman of the Year, this is also a natural time to pause and reflect on how far she’s come.
“I didn’t start playing wheelchair basketball until I was out of college, a much longer career than I had anticipated because I started so late,” she said. “So here I am, still playing and 40.”