East High School senior Eliza McIntosh was born with spinal dysgenesis, plays basketball on the local nationally ranked Junior Wheelin’ Jazz team, plays tennis, rocks the violin and has multiple awards in the debate and chess worlds. The 17-year-old hopes to add to her long list of achievements by completing the longest wheelchair wheelie on Saturday, Oct. 8, at 8:30 a.m. at the East High School track, where she’ll set out to shatter the record of 10.016 miles.
Visit WheelinJazz.com/Eliza/eliza for more information about Eliza and the event.
What does life look like from a seated position?
I see a lot of low ridin’ pants. I get cricks in my neck from talking to tall people who stand too close. I am the envy of everybody standing in long lines, and I never get tired of standing around. I usually have the best seat in the house.
How did you build your wheelie skills?
I’ve been able to do them ever since I was a very small girl. It took me a while to perfect it and I fell over a lot, but I saw it as a challenge and so practiced very hard to be able to do it well. Whenever I’m sitting in my chair waiting for something or someone, I do a wheelie. When I go down steep hills—especially at high speeds—I hold a wheelie the whole time. As I’ve been preparing to shatter the world record, I have been going over to the East High track for hours at a time with my father, going mile after mile on a wheelie.
What inspired you to go for a world record?
A couple months ago, I was writing an essay on whether or not wheelchair basketball ought to be a high school varsity sport as part of the Wheelchair Basketball Academic All-American competition, and I stumbled across an article about a boy who had beaten the record a few years ago. As I skimmed through the article I thought, “Hey, I bet I could do that!” I kept thinking about it, and I started to realize how much awareness a stunt like that could raise for my basketball team.
How do people react to you upon first seeing and/or meeting you?
Everybody reacts completely differently. Usually, it depends on what their previous experiences has been like with other people in wheelchairs. Some people treat me regularly, others ask a ton of questions and others act as if I can’t speak and/or think for myself, asking the stranger who happens to be standing next to me what my disability is. It’s positively fascinating meeting people for the first time. People like me don’t exist in large numbers, therefore seeing me usually pushes people right out of their comfort zone, allowing me to see who they really are underneath whatever facade they may put up under other circumstances. I can see whether or not they are compassionate or kind right off the bat and how good they are in situations they’ve never been in before. Also, in some instances, I can see if they are religious or not. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve had people pray over me. It’s really sweet.
How did you get involved with basketball?
My mother tried for years to get me to sign up for wheelchair basketball, but I resisted, thinking that I was probably way different than the other kids and that it would just be weird. I had never met another wheelchair-bound person like myself, and in my microcosmic and introverted view of the world, I imagined myself to be all alone. Finally, my mother took matters into her own hands and signed me up. I was apprehensive the first time, unsure of what to expect. I needn’t have worried. The basketball team was well set up, and the people welcomed me with open arms. I met other kids who understood me better than I ever imagined possible, and I came to the realization that I was not alone, that I could, and would be, successful. As a direct result of basketball, I started realizing all I could do, rather than what I could not.
My basketball team was formed two years ago when the Wheelin’ Jazz hosted Utah’s first-ever wheelchair basketball tournament. The teams that were coming to play all had Junior teams that they wanted to bring along to play in the tournament. Thus, the Junior Wheelin’ Jazz was formed, pulling athletes from the two recreational teams that already existed: the Salt Lake and Clearfield teams. When the Junior Wheelin’ Jazz ended up taking second at the tournament, we decided to stick together. At our first national tournament, we placed eighth in the junior varsity division. This last season, we trained hard, and at nationals took fifth in the varsity division, losing only to the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. We’ve played in tournaments in Utah, Arizona, California, Washington and Colorado. This year, if the money can be raised, we hope to travel to some East Coast tournaments in order to play against higher-ranked teams.
How is the world-record event tied to your basketball team?
The driving force behind my determination to beat the world record is to raise awareness and funds for my team. I spent over $6,000 last year to participate, which is way more than most families can afford. Many of my teammates had to opt out because of the cost. I want to change that by raising funds to give everyone the opportunity to play at their highest competitive level regardless of their personal finances.
Have you ever been able to walk or run?
When I was born, doctors told my parents I would never be able to walk. Undaunted, they took me to Primary Children’s Medical Center, and a highly skilled and determined doctor created full-length leg braces for me, which allowed me to walk with the help of crutches. I used them until seventh grade, when I started using a manual wheelchair full time. Additionally, at the age of 3, I taught myself how to walk my own way: upside down and on my hands.