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Disabled siblings on how the sport mum made them take up helped cope with her loss

The MacSorley siblings, from Belfast, were devastated when their mother Anne died. Ten years later, her memory has inspired them to excel at wheelchair basketball

By Stephanie Bell

Their late mother Anne encouraged them to reach for the stars, and James and Eimear MacSorley have not let her down. The Belfast brother and sister, who tragically lost their devoted mum Anne at the age of 40 in a road traffic accident 10 years ago, are rising stars on the world disabled basketball stage - the sport their mother encouraged them to take up when they were just six and seven years old.

And there would have been no one prouder than Anne to see her children take to the stage in Belfast City Hall last year to pick up individual awards as Northern Ireland Disabled Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year - a title James received again in the 2015 awards just a few weeks ago.

Both born with spina bifida, James (20) and Eimear (21) were encouraged from a young age by both of their parents - mum Anne was a pharmacist and dad Michael (53) is a GP - to enjoy full and active lives.

Despite the adversity they have faced, they are both positive go-getters who inspire all who know them.

James is studying law and Spanish at Queen's University, and ultimately aims to compete at the Paralympics. Eimear, meanwhile, works as a medical receptionist in a north Belfast GP's surgery, is training to be a basketball coach and aspires to join the GB senior squad.

Both have competed at world level, and James is a European gold medal winner.

They are also both members of the Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club in Belfast - the place where it all began for the pair after Anne encouraged them to join, and the place where they met lifelong friends and learned how to be competitive and excel in the tough world of wheelchair basketball.

The brother and sister have a very close bond. Growing up with a disability they have been a huge support to each other as they faced the same struggles. The sudden death of their loving mum when they were just 10 and 11 years old was a trauma they have come through together and, of course, they have their joint passion for basketball.

Today they talk about what drives them in their sport and how they've overcome the challenges of their disability and the loss of their mum to achieve their dreams.

James says:

I was six and Eimear was seven when mum got us into basketball. She just wanted to get us out of the house and active and at the time I remember I wasn't that fussed about going. I was a bit nervous and quiet.

I got to meet a lot of new people and I made new friends which helped me to get into it. Now it has completely changed my life. I went from being a six-year-old doing something for an hour on a Wednesday night to an international athlete, training every day. It has completely changed everything for me.

It is my life; it is something that I do every day and what I want to do in the future. There is a great sense of community with basketball. It all started for me at club level and the Knights have helped me out an unbelievable amount and put me where I am today.

I'm also lucky to be well supported by the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland.

I train three times a week and I'm on court every day. I can't remember the last day I didn't play. I would get a bit of withdrawal if I missed a day.

I was 10 when I played in the National Junior Championships and we won - that feeling of winning spurred me on.

I played for the Knights at junior, then senior level. When I was 14 I went to a Great Britain Junior Fundamental Camp and got called back straight away to their training camp. I was really nervous playing at that level when I was 14 and 15, but now it's second nature.

I got picked for the Great Britain B team in 2012. It was unbelievable. I was sitting in school on a Friday when I got a call from the head coach. On Monday, I was playing with people that I really looked up to. It was a bit surreal.

From there, I was selected to play in the Under-22 European Championships in Stoke Mandeville in 2012. We came fourth and lost out on a medal, which was tough.

In 2012, eight of us were picked to carry the flag at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics. That was unbelievable to be in front of 10,000 people and millions on TV. It was possibly the most incredible thing I've ever done and the support I got was unreal.

I then went to the Under-23 World Championships in Turkey and we came fourth again, which was tough because we lost out to the Australians by just two points. That was a low point in my career. Then last year at the European Championships in Spain, we got gold.

It's relatively quiet at the minute as there are no major championships and I am playing for the Knights. We are currently third or fourth in the top league in Great Britain.

My dream is to play at international level and at some time in the future it would be amazing to get to the Paralympics. To be able to play for GB at international level would be an absolute honour. They don't have their squad picked for next year, so I will just have to wait and see.

When I finish university I plan to pack my bags and see where it takes me. Having Spanish gives an added dimension to what I can do and I would love to play and coach overseas before eventually coming back home and to give something back to the Knights.

I was 10 when mum died. We were on holiday in Donegal and dad was working, so he wasn't with us. Mum had gone with my grandmother to do a message and never came back. Dad arrived and I remember thinking "What's he doing here?" My grandmother survived although physically she was pretty smashed up.

My mum was a very bubbly and passionate person - she was very positive about things and very funny as well. She was always able to make us laugh. We were the two most important people in her life and she would have done anything for us.

She really pushed us on in basketball and she pushed to get us to mainstream school. She has put us in the position we are in today, both her and dad. She has been gone for 10 years now but she is still with us.

Growing up as two kids with spina bifida, Eimear and I had the same struggles. In basketball we have been able to travel and play together, which has brought us even closer together.

The way my disability affects me is I don't have the full use of my legs. I don't sit around feeling sorry for myself and I think that's because I'm surrounded by people who won't let me.

In the Knights, there are guys with spinal injuries and amputations and stuff and they are all out playing and why not? The Knights have really encouraged and influenced me. I would love to have that sort of influence on someone else - I would love the chance to be a role model and help people out the way I have been helped in my life.

I have given talks to school kids through Disability Sports in Northern Ireland and the Knights which have helped open their eyes up to disability.

I think disability sport is one of the best ways to help people to understand. People come to our games and you've just got to see the look on their faces, they are blown away by what they see."

Eimear says:

When mum wanted us to join the Knights, I was a lazy child and not that interested. At first I went for the social aspect and the craic.

There were no real competitions at that age, just training, and then when I was nine or 10 I had my first regional competition in Stoke Mandeville, which changed everything for me.

In 2009, I got picked for the GB Women's team to go to the World Championships in Canada. Eventually, though, I got dropped from the GB team. I think it was because I couldn't always make training in England. To get scouted for the GB team you need to be in England a lot. I'm training three times a week, twice with the Knights and one night at the gym and I also go to Northern Ireland training sessions and satellite clubs for juniors, which are usually once a month.

I am doing my Level 2 in coaching, which will qualify me as a head coach and hopefully having that in my pocket means that if I stop playing for whatever reason, I will still be involved in the sport.

I'm so grateful to the Knights for the support they have given me over the years. They always try to push you forward; all the coaches are so dedicated.

Basketball is my passion. It was great for both James and I to win at the Belfast Sports Awards, last year. Everybody was joking that it had to be a fix and that for both of us to get an award we must have paid them. I just said "No, it's because we are good at what we do".

James and I have always been a support to each other especially as we have the same disability. I think growing up with a disability affected me more than James. I am a more self-conscious person in general and quite shy although you wouldn't think it because I like to talk.

It doesn't bother me so much now that I am older, but in school it was tough. In primary school, the children had never seen a wheelchair before and they would have stared and pointed at me. I wasn't upset as much as confused. I knew I was different and that didn't bother me in myself, but other people were making a point of it and that was hard.

Some kids would have asked me about it and that's fine. I prefer people to ask me what has happened or what is my disability, rather than just stare.

The majority of people let you get on with your life and are fine about it, but you always get the odd one and they are usually older people who say things that can be upsetting.

Someone said to me recently "It's great that you are out and about" and I just replied "Well I'm 21 years of age. Of course, I'm going to be out and about" and she probably thought I was really cheeky.

I'm independent and I wish that instead of seeing my wheelchair, people would see me as a 21-year-old young woman.

I remember the day my mum died - it was horrible and I wouldn't believe it at first when dad told us. She went out that day and never came back.

It is good that James and I have been able to talk to each other about it and we have been a support to each other growing up. We probably didn't talk to dad so much about how we were feeling because we didn't want to upset him.

Mum was hilarious; everyone says I'm so like her, that I have her personality and her sense of humour. She was good craic and funny, but also sensible when you needed her to be.

After she died we kept up our basketball because it was what she would have wanted and I know she would have been so proud."

The all-conquering Knights

The Knights Wheelchair Basketball Team was formed in 1990 when a few disabled people, who had no previous knowledge or experience of wheelchair sport, came together to play basketball.

The club has since evolved into a charity that aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people with a disability - and their families - across Northern Ireland.

The club has four teams - under-15s, under-19s and two senior teams - who all play in the Irish League and the Great Britain League. Players represent the national teams of Ireland and Great Britain. The club is also represented at regional level, with a selection of its members making up the majority of the Northern Ireland teams across all age groups.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, the club is bringing together players from across GB and Ireland for a basketball festival in June.

The 25th Anniversary Tournament will run from June 19 until June 21 at the Antrim Forum, and admission is free.

On a weekly basis, around 50 players - juniors aged from 4-16 and seniors aged 17 and up - train at the Antrim Forum.

New players are always welcome and should make contact through the Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club's page on Facebook, its Twitter account at @NIKnightsWBC, or by calling Jason Kennedy, tel: 07801436248. Anyone seriously thinking of joining the club should get in touch now if they want to be in with a chance of playing in the new season, which starts in September.

Belfast Telegraph


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