Not all basketball stars tower on the court — University of Illinois athlete Mckayla Jones dominates the sport from a wheelchair.
“My favorite part about basketball is finding creative ways to shoot or play defense,” Jones tells CNN.
As a player, the college freshman is fierce and fiery, unafraid to take risks.
“Even though we are in wheelchairs, we are still going full speed — pushing as hard as we can,” she said.
Looking at Jones today, it is hard to believe confidence didn’t always come naturally.
“As a kid I was pretty nerdy — I was shy,” she says.
Growing up on wheels
At four years old, Jones suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury in a car crash.
“A complete spinal cord injury is when you sever your spinal cord completely,” the athlete explains. “Mine is just bruised or contused so there are still some signals going through. Just not all the way.”
She doesn’t remember much about getting injured. Mostly she remembers the “cool nurses” who helped her as a patient.
“I remember having a lot of fun in the hospital,” she laughs.
“I was really young. I don’t remember being sad.” she recalls. A life on wheels is all she has ever known.
“I don’t remember being able to walk.”
More than just a game
The college student says her love of sports started early.
“I was active even if I was disabled,” Jones recalls. “My family did a really good job of making it so I did everything my siblings did.”
She participated in sports like tennis and track before discovering a love of basketball.
But by middle school, Jones noticed that some of her classmates treated her differently.
“Everyone has their thing that you are made fun of in middle school,” she said. “Mine was because I was disabled.”
She says that even now, one of the most challenging parts of living with a disability is not the condition itself but battling the perceptions of others.
“The hardest thing is people making it seem like you’re a completely different species,” Jones says.
“It is less ‘ha ha’ she’s in a wheelchair,'” she says. “It’s more like, they won’t talk to you and they pretend that you are not there.”
But on the court, her skills are undeniable. They led to an athletic scholarship and a strong sense of self.
Life off the court
Jones is currently studying human development and family studies at the University of Illinois.
She hopes to enter social work to assist families and children who have experienced trauma.
But for now, the outgoing freshman is enjoying life as a college student — driven by her love of the game.
“Basketball to me means confidence,” she says.
“It has given me the ability to do things I never thought I could do.”