Athlete turns tragedy into triumph

Amanda Yan, a member of Canada
Amanda Yan, a member of Canada's national wheelchair basketball team, gets in a little practice at the outdoor court near her home in Burnaby's Edmonds area.

A terrible snowboard accident changed Amanda Yan’s life.

And a basketball saved it.

Yan, a Burnaby resident, fell into a deep depression after the accident, which cost her the use of her legs. She withdrew from her friends, family, school and activities.

But today she has made a remarkable comeback, and is looking forward to representing Canada at the World Wheelchair Basketball Championships in 2014, and the Paralympics in 2016.

Getting here, though, hasn’t been easy.

Yan was on her last run of the day at Whistler when she lost an edge as she traversed a Cat track. She slipped beneath a barrier and over a 100-foot cliff.

“Oh my god, I’m going to die,” thought Yan, who was a month shy of her 20th birthday, as she plummeted head first, flipping over three times.

Her cellphone vibrating in a pocket on her chest brought her back to consciousness. It was her boarding companions, asking if she was all right.

“I’ll be OK,” Yan assured them.

But she wasn’t.

Yan’s back was broken, between the L1 and L2 vertebrae. She’d never walk again.

Two weeks at Vancouver General Hospital and three months at the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre gave her the physical tools to adjust to her new life in a wheelchair. She learned how to get around and take care of herself.

“It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you’re living in a rehab centre with people with worse injuries than you,” says Yan.

She started playing basketball when some athletes from BC Wheelchair Sports visited G.F. Strong to demonstrate their sport.

Growing up, Yan had always been active; she swam, snowboarded, played soccer and volleyball. Getting on the hardwood, knocking wheels with other players, brought her welcome relief from the day-to-day drudgery of rehab.

“It was hard for me to sit still,” says Yan. “Being an athlete all my life, at this stage I didn’t realize I could still be an athlete.”

One of her coaches, Joe Higgins, told her to keep at it, she had potential. A national-level player, Marni Abbot-Peter, also gave her encouragement.

After Yan was released from G.F. Strong, she hooked up with a recreational league at Douglas College in New Westminster, but was hindered by an undiagnosed wrist injury.

That September, four months after her accident, Yan returned to her studies in health sciences at Simon Fraser University where she was entering her third year.

That’s when, finally, the enormity of her accident and impact on her life hit her.

Every elevator ride, every arduous roll up a ramp or across a bumpy sidewalk magnified her frustration, her anger at being unable to walk.

A week into the semester she left school.

“I was really closing myself off,” says Yan. “It was very difficult, I fell into self-pity.”

Dark thoughts invaded her idleness.

“When you have all the time in the world, that’s when you have a lot more time to think,” says Yan.

During her depression, her basketball coaches kept in touch, but didn’t press her. They understood the delicacy of dealing with people coping with a new disability.

After a year of isolation, Yan joined a local league.

“It totally changed my perspective. I started to accept everything that happened.”

She poured all the energy she could muster into basketball, improving her abilities.

“I took it very seriously,” says Yan, who also returned to school to complete her degree. “I seized all the opportunities I could to go to practice.”

Within six or seven months she’d been recruited to the BC Breakers, an elite competitive team comprised of the best players in the province.

To push herself harder, she also joined a co-ed league because the men would be tougher and rougher.

Yan was part of the Breakers team that won the national championship in 2012. Coaches from Canada’s national squad were in the stands, and were impressed with her play. She was invited to a selection camp in January and became only the second player ever to make the squad on her first tryout.

“When I got invited, I got butterflies,” she says. “How cool is that to represent your country? I was in awe.”

This has been a quiet year for Canada’s national wheelchair basketball team, a year after the Paralympics in London.

It’s been anything but for Yan.

In addition to national training camps and tournaments, she works out five or six days a week and plays for a number of competitive and recreational teams. She wants to be ready for the world championships in Toronto in 2014, and the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Yan’s also studying accounting now, at UBC.

Juggling all her newfound opportunities and responsibilities has been made a little easier when Yan was recently named to Team Next, an initiative by CIBC to help fund and mentor 67 amateur athletes from across Canada. Yan, who’s now 24, is one of 11 Team Next athletes from B.C. Each is awarded a $5,000 grant for the next three years. They’re also paired with an established elite athlete who teaches them the ropes in skills like time management to keep them at the top of their game. And they attend workshops in personal finance, career planning, public speaking and social media.

It’s a whole new world for Yan that never would have opened for her, she says, were it not for that fateful day in Whistler and the restorative powers of a bouncing orange ball.

“I didn’t think I would end up at this point in life,” she says. “I had the worst images in my head, and I guess I proved myself wrong.”



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