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Meet the fierce Utah Paralympians who are in Tokyo right now, ready to compete for the gold

Shelby Jensen, Marybai Huking and Ali Ibanez have turned what some would call disabilities into advantages and have shown staying power in their respective sports.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shelby Jensen of Salt Lake City will be competing in wheelchair fencing — saber, epee and foil — in the Paralympics in Tokyo. She is ranked No. 1 in saber in the USA and No. 2 in the other two. She can stand but uses a wheelchair after having a stroke when she was 7.

Brandon Smith wasn’t out to make Shelby Jensen anything she isn’t.

Jensen can’t move her right arm and her right leg drags some when she walks. It’s been that way for her since second grade, when she suffered one stroke from a ruptured brain aneurysm while in school and then another on the operating table. The second stroke left her mostly paralyzed on her right side.

But Jensen, now 20, is wicked quick with her left hand. And she’s sharp, perhaps even more so than the three types of swords she’ll wield while competing in wheelchair fencing over the next two weeks at the Paralympics in Tokyo. When Smith began coaching the Millcreek native four years ago — before either knew much about the Paralympics — he saw promise in those attributes. He also saw a glimmer of something. Something that might set her apart.

“Instead of trying to mold her, it was more like, ‘Let’s see what you can do,’” Smith said of teaching Jensen to fence. “She has a sense of style. So, let’s work with her style.”

And what exactly is Jensen’s style? Smith has just one word for it:

“Fierce.”

Though that trait sets Jensen apart on the fencing strip, she’s not the only fierce female from Utah who will be competing in Tokyo this week. Marybai Huking, of Salt Lake City, will return to the Paralympics in goalball after helping Team USA take bronze in 2016 and Ali Ibanez, of Murray, will make her debut in wheelchair basketball.

Two men will also represent the state in track and field: defending gold medalist discus thrower David Blair of Eagle Mountain and two-time medalist Hunter Woodhall of Syracuse, who will run the 400 meters.

The women are the future, though. Jensen, Huking and Ibanez rank among the youngest competitors on their respective teams or, in some cases, their sport. And they have carved out a place for themselves on the world’s grandest parasport stage by embracing what makes them unique — even among some of the world’s most physically unique athletes — and using it to their advantage.

Each has turned what started out as a disability into an asset, or at very least an afterthought.

“It takes determination,” Jensen, who was bullied in middle school, said of reaching the Paralympics. “Determination. Dedication. And physically you don’t have to be as buff as a bodybuilder, but you need to have some strength. Mentally you need to be more strong than most.”

(Mark Reis) Marybai Huking of Salt Lake City competes in goalball on Aug. 28, 2019 at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.

MARYBAI HUKING, GOALBALL

Huking begged her mother, who had adopted her from China when she was 2, over and over not to make her go to another goalball practice.

The 9-year-old had found her sport. It was figure skating, not this silly game — a sort of reverse dodgeball and soccer combination played on a volleyball court by two teams of three. But her mother asked her to stick with it, at least through the end-of-the season tournament.

The camaraderie and excitement of the tournament intoxicated Huking, who has rarely skated since.

Born with albanism, a condition in which the body does not produce any pigment in a person’s hair, skin or eyes, the 24-year-old has some sight but is legally blind. Yet in goalball, where all participants are required to wear eye shades to ensure an equal lack of sight, her biggest setback is actually her lack of height.

Huking and two teammates must create a barrier that prevents a basketball-sized ball bowled, skipped or spun toward them by an opponent from entering a goal that spans the width of a volleyball court. At 5-foot-1, she leaves some considerable holes. But, she has learned how to fill them.

“Where I may lack height, I make up for it in speed,” she said. “I think what makes me a really great defender is that I’m fast and I am really good at explosive movements. I like to read the ball and make a lot of last-minute plays where I’m, like, jumping up to catch the ball or moving over really quickly at the last second.”

Her true gifts, however, are a bit more cerebral. Her strategic mind and ability to communicate have made her a key cog in Team USA’s push to bring back a gold medal from Tokyo. As the team’s center, she is charged with directing her other two teammates on the court how to best place themselves to deflect an attack.

She credits her understanding of the game to 10 years of experience. That includes witnessing the Americans’s bronze-medal effort first-hand, though mostly from the bench, as the youngest member of the American Paralympic squad in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The communication? Huking, who graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Utah in 2019, said much of that is a product of the pandemic.

“It helped us in that it gave us time to learn more about each other,” she said. “And I think, especially in this time, where we were all kind of missing some connection in our life, it kind of gave us the chance to connect on a more deep and meaningful level and understand each other better as people and that helped a lot in the process of, you know, being better teammates.”

(Mark Reis) Ali Ibanez competes for Team USA in the gold medal wheelchair basketball game Aug. 30, 2019 at the Lima 2019 Parapan American Games.

ALI IBANEZ, WHEELCHAIR BASKETBALL

Every member of a team has a role, and on the USA women’s wheelchair basketball team, Ibanez knows hers.

“I’m one of the minions,” the 21-year-old said. “My job is to work my butt off to get everyone else open, and I love it.”

Ibanez could say she was born to fill that role. She has arthrogryposis, a congenital disability that causes a person’s joints to lock up. Her legs are basically stuck in the sitting position. Yet her upper body has, somewhat unusually, been unaffected. It’s a small thing, but one Ibanez considers a blessing.

As a kid, she could attend basketball camps in her chair and shoot around with her six brothers and sisters. Then one day in 2013, her sister called their mom and ordered her to bring Ibanez to an elementary school playground near their Murray home at once. When they got there, they found a wheelchair basketball team practicing on the outdoor courts.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, crap. Like, that’s pretty sick,’” she said. “‘That looks cool. I need to try this.’”

The next day, Ibanez was playing with the team, called the Utah Rush.

She describes herself as “a horrible player,” but she loved it and she was quick. She stuck with it and by her senior year at Cottonwood High, Ibanez had been called up to the national team. A year later, before the 2020 Games were postponed, she was named to the Paralympic squad for the defending gold medalists.

She can hardly believe she’s now in Tokyo. Prior to Team USA’s opening game Tuesday night, a 68-58 loss to Netherlands, Ibanez asked co-captain Natalie Schneider to jolt her back into reality.

“I was like, ‘Natalie, I need you to hit my chair as hard as you can,’” Ibanez said in a Zoom call Wednesday. “And she was like, ‘What?! OK.’ So she just hit my chair and I was like, ‘All right, cool, I’m ready to go.’”

Wheelchair basketball teams consist of players with a mix of physical abilities, and players can only sub in for teammates with similar classifications. Ibanez has some of the least amount of core control on her team and can only sub for two other players. So, she wasn’t upset when she was one of six USA players who didn’t get on the court in the opener. She knows her style of play and what her talents are — mainly setting picks and playing defense — and she knows she’ll be called upon when the team needs them.

Plus, she’s playing the long game.

“I’m looking forward to Paris [2024] and preparing for that,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to L.A. 2028. That’s one probably all my family members can go to, and that would be nice.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shelby Jensen of Salt Lake City who will be competing in wheelchair fencing — saber, epee and foil — in the Paralympics in Tokyo, demonstrates one of her moves knows as the Matrix with her coach Brandon Smith. She is ranked No. 1 in saber in the USA and No. 2 in the other two. She can stand but uses a wheelchair after having a stroke when she was 7.

SHELBY JENSEN, WHEELCHAIR FENCING

With her blond pixie cut, big blue eyes and slight build, Jensen just about pulls off the indefensible maiden look. Only her impish smile gives her away.

Luckily, she wears a mask while fencing.

“My style is aggressive and strong,” she said. “So I’ve been more kind of like, ‘OK, let’s go. OK, let’s go.’ I always want to go fast.”

And she has gone fast through the American and international ranks. While watching Olympic fencing on TV in 2016, she found it “like watching paint dry” because she didn’t understand it. Five years later, while training at the Valkyrie Fencing Club in Orem and in her parents’s backyard out of a pair of metal competition chairs her father designed, she has built her world around the sport and the study of its intricacies. She is the youngest wheelchair fencer competing in Tokyo and on Tuesday became one of the first athletes to compete in women’s saber, a new sport for the Paralympics. is also part of the first complete [three-person] women’s team the United States has sent to an Olympics since 2004. And if she sticks to her plan and her training, she might become the first American woman to win a medal. That’s not likely to happen until 2024 or 2028, though, as with most things, Jensen would like to do it faster.

Her affinity for speed has cost her points. That includes points on the scoreboard, like when she doesn’t wait until she has the right of way while fencing foil, and points of contact. She admits to having fallen out of the chair a few times when she’s gotten too aggressive.

But Jensen doesn’t stay down for long. She gets back up and keeps fighting — which is something she said wheelchair fencing has taught her.

“It has boosted my confidence,” she said. “Just doing a sport with other like minded people and disabled people like myself.”

How to watch

Tokyo Paralympics

Wednesday

NBCSN, 6 p.m. MDT: Women’s goalball, USA vs. Brazil; men’s basketball, USA vs. Germany; men’s rugby, USA vs Canada; swimming finals

Thursday

NBCSN, 1 a.m. MDT: Women’s basketball, USA vs. Spain; cycling, 3000m individual track pursuit; swimming finals

NBCSN, 7 p.m. MDT: Women’s track, 5000M; wheelchair rugby, Australia vs. Japan; Cycling, 4000M individual pursuit; men’s goalball, USA vs. Japan; wheelchair tennis

Friday

NBCSN, 1 a.m. MDT: Swimming, 100m backstroke finals; Track & Field, 200m T37, 100m T47 and 400m T52 finals; men’s wheelchair basketball, USA vs. Iran; wheelchair rugby, USA vs. Great Britain; Judo, 60kg weight class

Olympic Channel, 3:30 p.m. MDT: Triathlon; wheelchair table tennis; swimming; wheelchair basketball

NBCSN, 10 p.m. MDT: Women’s wheelchair basketball, USA vs. China; wheelchair rugby semifinal

For a complete television schedule, visit nbcolympics.com/schedule. Some competitions will also be shown on the NBCSports app. For a full competition schedule, visit olympics.com/tokyo-2020/en/paralympics/.



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