Disabled Coach Conveys Can-Do Attitude

People, Sports
on November 25, 2001

Malinda Callaway likes the hardwood. While her team practices under the basket, she circles the girls, coaching, and suggesting changes. She challenges their jump shots herself, obscuring the shooter’s vision with upraised hands and testing their concentration with her titanium wheelchair.

The paralysis she suffered from a 1989 car accident hasn’t kept Callaway from coaching basketball, teaching science, and inspiring excellence in Macon, Ill. (pop. 1,213). “I don’t dwell on things I can’t do,” explains Callaway, 30. “I concentrate on what I can do.”

Meridian High School’s Lady Hawks knew little of their coach’s can-do attitude until their first practice last year. “Coach Callaway shot the ball and was supposed to miss so we could practice blocking block out,” recalls junior guard Rachelle Renfro. “But she just kept making baskets. We were totally amazed.”

They shouldn’t have been. Before Callaway flipped her car and broke her back in four places, the Cissna Park, Ill., (pop. 811) athlete had been a standout in high school basketball, track, volleyball, and softball. After her accident, she was determined to continue competing—on wheels.

For a year, she trained 50 hours a week, combining weight workouts and 20-mile road races for endurance. Then, as a forward, she led the University of Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team to five national championships. Earning a spot on the USA Gold Cup team in the 1994 Para-Olympics, she brought home a silver medal and the expertise to coach.

“I teach that you have to be strong mentally,” says Callaway of her basketball philosophy. When she started coaching at Meridian, Callaway pressed the team to think as a unit and develop self-confidence.

“She knows what we can do,” says Renfro, who Callaway convinced to drive more instead of passing the ball. “She believes we can do it. She builds us up.”

During the 1999-2000 season, the young team won 20 percent more games than during the previous year, ending with an 11-14 record. Parents appreciate her character more.

“She’s already a fine coach,” says Ken Renfro, Rachelle’s father. “But her biggest asset is her attitude. It’s contagious. You’re just up when you’re around her.” During the summer, Callaway and her team participated in both the Decatur Park League and in the American Youth Basketball Tour, competing in 35 games against Champaign, Decatur, and DeKalb teams.

Playing against the Lady Hawks in both winter and summer seasons, Dan Miller, Niantic, Ill., coach and Macon County Coach of the Year, has seen Callaway’s team progress.

“They have improved and do a good job,” he says. “That has to be attributed to her. I don’t see her chair any more. I just see a good coach and a really nice person.”

To Callaway, her disability is always secondary, a belief Principal Mike Lynch quickly discovered during her initial interview two years ago. “Her resume didn’t mention it,” Lynch says. “We didn’t discuss her handicap at all.”

“I don’t need anything special,” says Callaway, who eats lunch in the principal’s office, uses the locker room bathroom, and gets to the teachers’ lounge by going outside and around the school to an accessible back entrance.

Callaway teaches biology, physical science, and chemistry, stressing problem solving and critical thinking. She schedules weekly labs in each, driving into the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. to set up experiments. She often stays past 8 p.m., tutoring students or preparing lessons. Grading papers takes up weekends. Inevitably, students seek her counsel, dropping by her classroom or home.

“You make time for them,” says Callaway, whose credo, “Teachers Touch a Life Forever,” hangs above her couch. “Students come to me because I’ve been through a lot. They just need someone to listen.”

Between basketball seasons, Callaway pursues her master’s degree in administration. She is a member of the curriculum and school improvement committees. A basketball camp for second- to fifth-graders is next year’s goal. Now a newlywed, she and her husband, James, are remodeling their home and landscaping their yard.

“She shows students there’s no reason why you can’t excel and achieve,” Lynch says. “She’s a tremendous role model.”

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