Former Key Peninsula resident and Peninsula High School graduate Megan Blunk at a recent practice in Gig Harbor. Photo: Ed Johnson, KP News

Megan Blunk will spend her 27th birthday in Rio de Janeiro playing for the USA National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team at the 15th Summer Paralympic Games.

“This is very good for the Paralympic Movement when others find out they can play sports. It can change of lot of people’s lives,” Blunk said. She was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in Belfair in 2008, two months after graduating from Peninsula High School.

“I do the dirty work and make things happen for other players. I foul and set screens for the shooters. I pick and roll, and dive to protect the shooters,” Blunk said.

A basketball wheelchair is customized to fit the player, who is strapped in. Blunk recently received a new basketball wheelchair and a chair for everyday use through a sponsorship from Quickie Wheelchair-Sunrise Medical. Each cost $6,000 with tires, spokes and tubes. “I am extremely grateful for the donations,” she said. “They read what I wrote about the fundraiser for my other chair and wanted to be a part of it.”

There is only one other USA basketball team member from Washington. The other 10 “come from Texas, Michigan, Colorado, Alabama, everywhere,” Blunk said. Their coach, Stephanie Wheeler, is a two-time Paralympics gold medalist with the team. Blunk herself won a gold medal at the 2015 Parapan American games. She is also a championship paracanoeist.

“All of my teammates have a good story to tell. Our sports psychologist, Dr. Roberta Krause, is making our team awesome,” Blunk said. She has been very open about fighting clinical depression and found that counseling helps. “I talk to good people who remind me of reality instead of what I’m thinking in my head. They push me to work harder.” She started a course of antidepressants, which she had avoided for a long time. “When you can’t see light, keep pushing forward. Don’t give up. That’s when things start to get better,” she said.

Competition at the games will come mainly from the Netherlands, Germany and Canada. Teams from China, Brazil, Great Britain and Australia will also compete.

Blunk said that when watching wheelchair basketball, it is helpful to know the rules. There is a classification system based on the degree of disability, ranked from 1 (least functional ability) to 4.5 (most functional ability). Blunk is classed as a 3.0 because she has a weak lower back. A player with cerebral palsy is ranked a 2.0. The five players on the court must limit their total points to 14 or less to be fair. “The game is crazy intense,” she said. “You need to compare the 1’s with the 1’s, not with the more able-bodied players.”

Blunk graduated this year from the University of Illinois, which she attended on a basketball scholarship. She spent the summer in training camps in Colorado and Germany, and was one of three athletes featured on the PBS program “A Capitol Fourth” when she visited Washington, D.C. She has since moved back to Gig Harbor to deliver her message to high schools and alternative schools. She recently helped run an activities day for children with physical disabilities and has shared her story with Little Rainbow Daycare and at an elementary school. “Knowing that I’m helping others makes it worth the effort,” she said.

The team left for Brazil Aug. 30 and will return Sept. 20. The games will be aired on NBC Sept. 8 to 19. Blunk wrote on her blog, “It can be disappointing when we don’t get to be recognized for what we are doing… That is why it is such a huge deal for the Paralympics to finally be aired on live TV for the first time ever.

“I’m very excited for everyone to watch it,” she said.

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