Helena Magazine

For the love of the game: Mary McLendon’s basketball journey

Published 5:58 am Wednesday, May 10, 2023

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Written by Lauren Sexton

Maintaining the balance of being a student-athlete is no easy task. Practices, games, school and physical stress are a lot for a high schooler to deal with. However, achieving the honor of playing at a collegiate level makes all the difficulties worth it in the end.

Helena senior Mary McLendon is not new to facing adversity. From a young age, McLendon has been using a wheelchair for basketball after being diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child. Yet, McLendon has never once let an obstacle define her. She’s embraced who she is and has now become one of the best wheelchair basketball players in the country.

“Growing up with a child with a disability is figuring out how things are going to work and working through that,” Mary’s father Brian McLendon said. “Our faith has helped us get through all of it.”

Mary has had many obstacles to overcome before and during her time as a wheelchair basketball player. However, the family’s faith in God and strength have guided them through their journey.

“Our faith in God has gotten us through a lot,” Brian said. “With what she’s had to go through growing up, she’s had to have multiple surgeries. ”

Mary’s career started off in a different direction, the now University of Alabama wheelchair basketball commit began her athletic journey as a swimmer at the Lakeshore Foundation.

“I started swimming at Lakeshore at the age of nine,” she said. “I had some people come up to me and just say, ‘We also have wheelchair basketball as an option if you wanted to do that.’ I went and tried it out and liked it.”

Longing to be a part of a team, transitioning from swimming to basketball was an easy decision for Mary and her family.

“She felt like she should go into practice by herself and do it all that by herself,” Brian said. “She wanted something where there was a team, and she saw that basketball was a better option for her.”

Being able to try different types of sports is one of the many things made possible by the Lakeshore Foundation. The foundation helps youth with disabilities get involved in adaptive sports.

“It originally started as a physical rehabilitation type,” Brian said. “The Lakeshore foundation is set up for senior adults to do rehab. Then, they started doing more and more activities that included youth sports for people with disabilities. They have track and field, swimming, basketball and rugby, but it’s also a wheelchair task board as well. Recently, they had a wheelchair football team.”

For a young Mary, being able to have access to a facility that offers different types of sports for people with disabilities has been a great experience for her as an athlete.

“It’s been a blessing really,” Mary said. “Not everybody has access to that facility, and it’s really nice to have that.”

Although the foundation has been an incredible asset to people with disabilities who want to participate in adaptive sports, there is an unfortunate lack of other adaptive sports teams within the state of Alabama.

“The problem with being here or being in a wheelchair sport is there are not a lot of teams within a certain state,” Brian said. “You end up going and playing other state teams from across the country.”

While there are some downfalls with having to spend time traveling across the country to compete against other wheelchair basketball teams, Mary sees the bright side of getting to meet new people from the sport.

“We’ve traveled all over the country,” Mary said. “I’ve met really awesome people. I’ve met one of my best friends in the whole world. It’s been a really great experience. There have been so many different opportunities and many people that I’ve met that I probably wouldn’t have met if I didn’t have CP. It’s been more of a blessing than a curse.”

Being the parent of a child who has been diagnosed with a disability from the age of 18 months has had its challenges; however, sharing the love of basketball and seeing his daughter be able to accomplish so many milestones in her athletic career has made the journey special for Brian.

“Our favorite games are when she was playing in a smaller league called Prep,” he said. “Mary is a girl playing in a co-ed League. She got an opportunity in the SEC championship. She got fouled with a few seconds left in the game, and it was tied. She had to go to the free throw, and she hit both of her free throws, and they won the SEC championship in the Prep League.”

Unlike some other sports, Mary believes that wheelchair basketball is a sport that she gains strength from. That in many cases, it is one of the tougher sports to be a part of.

“It makes you tougher than if you are playing stand-up,” she said. “You’re playing against girls most of the time, but when you are playing with guys it gives you a lot more experience and pushes you a little bit more. It prepares you for the next level.”

A lot of her competitive nature comes from competing against her twin brother, Will.

“She’s very aggressive for a girl, and they weren’t really sure what to do with her,” Brian said. “She’s competed against boys all the time.”

Mary’s competitive nature has earned the wheelchair basketball player many accolades and awards. The National Wheelchair Basketball Association Academic First Team All- American, the Pioneer Classic Female most outstanding 3.5 classification and the Big Peach Slam Jam Women’s 3 Point Champion are just a few of her accolades.

Now set to be an athlete at the University of Alabama as a member of the women’s wheelchair basketball team, Mary has her sights set on her future.

“I’m hoping to make the Paralympic team in the future,” she said. “I wanted to do something in sports medicine as far as a job.”

Yet all of this couldn’t have been possible without Mary’s strength, faith and perseverance above all else. While her journey has been a long and trying one, she has handled it with bravery.

“If you want to get somewhere, put in the work,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere you want by doing nothing. Put in the work and it’s going to pay off eventually.”