Robyn Love first took up wheelchair basketball in 2014. Just a year later, she was representing Great Britain (GB) in her first international tournament -- the Osaka Cup. Now the Scottish star is back in Japan for the Tokyo Paralympics as she and her teammates aim to become the first British women to win Paralympic basketball medals.
"Our first game in 18 months will be our first game in Tokyo (against Canada on Aug. 25). We have started to train smarter instead of harder. Confidence, happiness and well-being also play a big factor in team sports," said Love in an online interview with The Mainichi ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics starting Aug. 24.
"The Paralympics is about thriving ... through diversity and adversity. I think we do a good job of bringing all communities together. I love being a part of it," said Love, who is engaged to teammate Laurie Williams and takes part in LGBT activism. She also mentioned the role the Paralympics can play to enhance diversity in society.
"Sport is such a fantastic platform because it brings people together from all backgrounds despite color or religion. It's a great way to get positive messages out to people and to create positive change. You can't stop people being who they are and that's where role models are really important. I'm really grateful for this opportunity to represent Britain. Mental preparation and having time for yourself are also very important, and this year British Wheelchair Basketball has done a great job focusing on not just the athlete but also the person."
Just as GB's women's basketball team took on hosts Brazil at the 2016 Olympics, Love and her teammates will also battle it out on the court against home team Japan on Aug. 26 at the capital's Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
"It's a shame we can't get fans in to see the game as the Japanese are a great team. I've been to Japan five times and have played in the Osaka Cup and every time we've played against Japan, they get better and better. There's no doubt in my mind that they are going to take inspiration from their silver medal-winning (women's) running basketball team. The home team always seems to bring something extra."
Love has some standout memories from her several visits to Japan.
"When we visit for the Osaka Cup we usually get the chance to go into schools and say hello. The children really get stuck in no matter how old they are even if they can't understand me. I'm a Scottish person so I'm used to that anyway," she said with a laugh.
"They love it. They come to our games, out cheering us all, chanting our names. My first tournament for GB was that one, and I went halfway around the world for it. Japanese people are always so kind, wanting to help you. I just really enjoy that about the country."
After playing football and tennis in her childhood, Love got into running basketball, as opposed to wheelchair basketball, at Napier University in Edinburgh.
Love was born with a rare condition where her right leg is shorter than her left and some muscles in both legs are missing.
"I was born with a disability but fortunately I could still participate in able-bodied sports. I loved sport growing up but I didn't actually know about para sport until I saw it in 2012 for the first time when I was 22. I was the captain of my running basketball team and a teammate said, 'can you do that'? I said, 'I don't know, I've never seen it before. Maybe I can.'
"A year later I found out you didn't need to use a wheelchair all the time to play. A friend, another teammate, added, 'No anyone can play. Even able-bodied people can play.' And I'm like, 'Cool.' To be honest, it just looked so fun."
One of the major differences between basketball and wheelchair basketball is dribbling. In the latter, a player can push a wheelchair one or two times while the ball remains in their hands or lap. The player must then dribble the ball, then continue the sequence. If a player pushes their wheelchair more than two times without dribbling, it's penalized as a traveling violation. Fouling in wheelchair basketball is also slightly different. The wheelchair is considered a part of the player, so a foul in wheelchair basketball includes illegal contact with both the wheelchair and the player.
Love describes herself as "one of the most competitive people you will ever meet." A meeting with Basketball Scotland's Wheelchair Basketball Development Officer Tina Gordon in 2013 soon challenged that competitive spirit.
"Gordon said to me, right you are going to train at 7 in the morning with me and then we're going to do this ... And I'm thinking, who's this crazy woman. I just wanted to do this for fun and you're making me train from 7 in the morning until I go work.
"But thanks to her, I got selected for my first major tournament to represent Great Britain in 2015. I was practicing a lot. The thing is in Britain you have to go down to England to train at a high level because that's where all the facilities are located. There hadn't been a Scottish player on the GB squad, men or women, since 2000, so they were really keen to show that Scotland has got talent that can represent Great Britain."
Since GB narrowly missed out on a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics in women's wheelchair basketball, the team has vastly improved.
"To be honest I think we are focusing more on being the best team we can be. In the past it's been more a case of individual skills shining through and individual personalities dictating play. Now we are a real team. Going into Tokyo it's all about getting the best out of everyone."
To secure that elusive first medal, apart from Japan and several other countries, GB will have to overcome 2016 Rio Paralympic champions the United States, silver medalists Germany, and the Netherlands, which claimed successive Paralympic bronze medals at London 2012 and Rio 2016 before capturing their first world title in 2018.
While the global coronavirus pandemic has limited all participating countries' preparations for the Tokyo Paralympics, Love remains very positive.
"The governing body of British regional basketball has done a fantastic job at problem-solving. They've been very reactive. If something happens, they already have a plan in place. From March to September we weren't allowed to get onto a court last year due to the restrictions. But from September to December we were able to train as individuals, so no passing the ball, the coaches weren't able to get our rebounds, balls pinging around everywhere and we had to chase them, no team play, etc.
"After Christmas, as vaccines came in and restrictions became more relaxed, we could gradually go into pairs, then threes, then sixes. We haven't really had any tournament play," she said.
Looking ahead to the clash with Japan, Love has plenty of respect for the host team.
"Japan play a really good team game. All of them work together to make a successful team. Every player makes an impact, but in particular, Mayo Hagino has such a diverse role for that team. She works to get other high-point players in the key, she can shoot stationary from pretty far out and has such confidence in it. She's also a tough defender, a playmaker off the ball, she's aggressive and fights hard for her team. I like to see that in a player.
"Every team wants to win a medal and I'm looking forward to the battle against Japan ... cause that's what it's gonna be. Wouldn't it be great if Japan and Great Britain meet in the final?"
(By Greg Mettam, The Mainichi Staff Writer)