Kady Dandeneau is relearning a game she knows instinctually.
For five seasons, Dandeneau was a star player with the UNBC Timberwolves women's basketball team. At the offensive end of the court, her perfect blend of power and finesse made her almost unstoppable some nights. Give her a lane and she'd drive fearlessly to the hoop. Prevent her from getting inside, and she'd work herself into an open spot on the perimeter and bomb away.
Defensively, she was quite simply ferocious.
Dandeneau proudly wore UNBC colours from 2007-08 to 2012-13.
Yes, that's a six-year span, and within that timeframe lies the explanation of why she is now honing her basketball skills in the seat of a wheelchair.
Dandeneau, 26, is in Wheelchair Basketball Canada's development program. Right now, all that stands between her and becoming a carded development team player is the submission and review of a rather large amount of medical paperwork. She's not just waiting around for that to happen, however. She spent last week at WBC's national academy in Toronto, practicing with and playing against members of the senior national team. She was also in Toronto in late November/early December for a national team training camp that brought together the top 19 players in the country.
Dandeneau isn't on Wheelchair Basketball Canada's radar by accident. As a wheelchair player, she has made huge advances since she first gave the sport a serious try at a camp in Victoria last winter.
"I was terrible at the start," said Dandeneau, who grew up on Pender Island and was convinced by Pender's Tim Frick - coach of Canada's women's wheelchair team from 1990 to 2009 - to take a shot at wheelchair basketball.
"I got in the chair, and in standup (basketball), if you want to move, you move - you go there, you don't even really have to think about it. But here, I was sitting in this chair and I was like, 'OK, now I've got to use my hands.' You start wheeling and there's actually quite a technique to doing it properly and so I had people just blowing by me like nothing. It was awful. If you don't have the ball, OK, you can push, but as soon as you get the ball you're like, 'Wait, how am I supposed to move? I've got this ball in my hands and I'm supposed to use my hands to wheel.'
"It was definitely a really big learning curve," she added. "It was difficult. I'm getting the hang of it now. I'm by no means great at chair skills right now but I've definitely improved a lot, so that's nice."
For the record, wheelchair basketball rules dictate that a player may wheel the chair and dribble the ball simultaneously. But, once the ball is picked up and/or placed in the player's lap, he or she is only permitted to push twice before having to shoot, pass or dribble again. Unlike standup basketball, there is no double-dribble rule.
By last April, Dandeneau had progressed in wheelchair basketball to the point where she played for Team B.C. at the national championship tournament.
"I was still a very new player and wasn't very good," she said with a chuckle. "I think they just needed the players, needed some bodies. I ended up doing some training with Tim ahead of time to get better prepared. It was a good experience. We were a pretty new team. We had a lot of beginners on our team so we didn't do too well but it was good. It was fun. We got to compete against a lot of really good players and I enjoyed it."
In regular life, Dandeneau isn't confined to a wheelchair. Far from it. But, when it comes to standup basketball, she can't play the way she once did. Her left knee won't allow it.
When she was part way through her third year as a member of the UNBC women's team, Dandeneau injured the knee during a home game against the Kwantlen Eagles. The date was Jan. 23, 2010, and, while driving to the basket, she went knee-on-knee with a Kwantlen defender. Dandeneau - who was leading the B.C. Colleges Athletic Association with an average of 18.3 points per game at the time - suffered what was likely a partial tear in her anterior cruciate ligament and missed the next five contests.
Wearing a brace, Dandeneau got back into the lineup for the last two games of the regular season. In UNBC's final outing of the regular schedule, she pumped in 26 points and seemed like she would be good to go for playoffs. But, in a practice just before playoffs, she re-injured the joint. It was later determined that she tore the ACL completely, damaged her medial collateral ligament and sustained a fracture in her upper femur.
Dandeneau had off-season surgery and was planning to be back in uniform for the second half of 2010-11. She changed her mind, however, after practicing with the Timberwolves during a Christmas trip to Phoenix. She realized she wasn't mentally ready and ended up missing the entire season.
Dandeneau healed sufficiently to play the 2011-12 season and capped her UNBC career in 2012-13, the T-wolves' first year at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level. While she was still very effective during those last two years, playing on one good knee prevented her from being the force she had previously been.
In total, Dandeneau has undergone four operations. She had her most recent surgical procedure - an exploratory one in which her meniscus was also repaired - in November. Unfortunately, she has developed a bone defect - a result of the original break in the femur - and has been told that very little can be done about it.
If Dandeneau attempted to play standup basketball now, she'd be in pain.
"I guess I could play to an extent, but nowhere near the level I used to play at," she said.
"If I were to try and play, I'd make sure I had it taped up, braced up. It would pretty well be locked in and I wouldn't be able to move it much if I did try and play."
Now that she's a wheelchair basketball player, Dandeneau is getting a second chance at being in a team environment and a competitive environment, something she has missed terribly.
"It has just made it a lot easier to kind of accept the fact that I probably won't play standup again - it's just nice to be able to play a competitive sport again, especially because it is basketball," she said. "It's very awesome to have that competitive outlet again and be a part of a team again. Being around like-minded athletes is great. I'm happy about that."
In wheelchair basketball, each player is given a specific classification that relates to the level of his or her disability. In international competition, the categories range from 1.0 to 4.5, with the lower numbers indicating a higher degree of disability. As well, considerations are made for players with lower limb deficiencies and upper limb impairments. In game situations, classification numbers are used to level off a team's functional potential with respect to its opponent.
Currently, Dandeneau is waiting to be classified, which requires an in-depth review of her medical records. Once she has her classification - hopefully in a month or two - she said Wheelchair Basketball Canada has told her she will be offered a card as a development team player.
Assuming everything goes smoothly with the carding process, Dandeneau could eventually land on the senior national team and find herself competing in international tournaments, including the Paralympics. She won't be ready for Rio this summer, but she would like to take the game as far as she can.
"If I keep working at it and putting in the time and effort - which isn't a problem - I feel like I could definitely be a part of the (senior national) program," she said. "It's exciting."
Loralyn Murdoch, who was Dandeneau's head coach at UNBC, wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see her take wheelchair basketball to great heights.
"In the wheelchair basketball world she's probably very inexperienced but that won't deter her at all," Murdoch said. "She will outwork anybody I know and she's so determined that she'll make it happen.
"That girl loves basketball, any kind of basketball," Murdoch added. "The fact that she's taking that passion for the game and putting it into something she physically can do now... I think it's awesome."
Next September, Dandeneau may end up at the University of Alabama. She hasn't applied for admittance yet, but is interested in getting a masters degree in exercise physiology and playing for the Crimson Tide women's wheelchair basketball team. That club, as it so happens, is coached by Elisha Williams, a Prince George product who had her standup basketball career halted by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
After her injury - strikingly similar to the one Dandeneau suffered - Williams went on to play wheelchair basketball and was part of Team Canada for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
"I got to talk with (Williams), and a lot of wheelchair basketball players from Canada go down there," Dandeneau said. "I think that I might do that. It would be really great."