Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coaching for Paralympic gold

Winnipegger heads women's hoops squad

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FROM bench-warmer to bench boss, from underdog to top dog.

Winnipegger Bill Johnson, 38, head coach of the Canadian senior women's wheelchair basketball team, has secured his ticket to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England, set for late August.

The story begins with Johnson's younger brother Joey, now a two-time gold medallist with the senior men's wheelchair basketball team, who was diagnosed with a degenerative hip disease at age 8.

At the time, Bill was 10 years old and decided to do whatever it took to continue playing sports alongside his little brother.

"We had always played every sport together, so I started playing wheelchair basketball," Johnson said during a break in team practice at the University of Manitoba. It was the first practice since the 12-player roster became official Thursday.

"I played, but I wasn't very good, so I was looking for other ways to get involved," Johnson said.

Then he got an invite from Michelle Stilwell, soon to be a three-time wheelchair gold medallist in track at the Paralympics. She was interested in starting a women's basketball team in Manitoba.

"I agreed to come out and help. I wasn't a coach at all at that point," Johnson said.

He joined initially to supervise practices, a role necessary for a team's contract and insurance.

"I came and I signed a piece of paper and I sat there the whole time."

But it wouldn't be long before Johnson made his way up the coaching ladder.

"I then started running a few drills and the next thing I know, I'm at the Paralympics," he joked.

This summer's games won't be Johnson's first international experience. He was assistant coach for the gold medallist senior men's team at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and again with the women's club at the 2008 Beijing games.

Now Johnson, the lone Manitoban on the team, has his latest assignment to capture gold for Canada.

"If you were to ask me a couple years ago, I would have said that's what I've always wanted, to be the head coach and be in charge, but now I feel the pressure. It's a lot of responsibility," he admitted.

The pressure comes from a women's team that dominated in the early '90s, winning three straight gold medals at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Paralympics, but have claimed only a bronze in the past two, missing the podium completely in 2008.

"I'm excited about it, though, because we have a nice mix of youth and experience with this group."

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2012 C7

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