Each year, about 1,500 babies are born with spina bifida, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Spina bifida occurs when the spinal cord does not form properly before birth and causes a malformation in the skull, which can result in paralysis.

Joe Underwood, a 17-year-old with spina bifida, sees light in his disability.

Underwood, who lives with his parents, Susan and Gary, and his 15-year-old brother, Sam, in Ahwatukee began playing sports when he was 7 years old, starting with bowling. When bowling didn’t work out, he turned to basketball and swimming. Underwood plays wheelchair basketball with the Phoenix Banner Wheelchair Suns and swims in an able-bodied team at his high school, Desert Vista.

Underwood said he enjoys playing basketball because it’s a team sport and he builds a lot of close relationships through it. While he plays many different positions on the court, his favorite is forward.

Robert Reed, assistant coach for Underwood’s basketball team, says that Underwood has turned into a strong athlete.

“I’ve watched him grow up and turn into a man, he’s going to be a great college athlete. He’s also a really great mentor for the younger kids,” Reed said.

Susan and Gary say their son has improved largely because of his athleticism. Underwood is paralyzed from the calves down, but is able to walk by swinging his hips in a way that moves his legs forward, according to Susan.

“At his level of paralysis, we didn’t think he’d be able to walk, but because he is so athletic, he can,” she said.

Underwood prefers to swim on an able-bodied team because he is challenged more.

“He swims on an able-bodied team because that’s where he gets the training; disability swimming is very limiting,” Susan said.

Shawn O’Connell, Underwood’s swim coach at Desert Vista, said Underwood is a huge motivator for the team.

“He never makes excuses. If he can’t do something, he’ll get creative and do something else. It inspires the other swimmers,” O’Connell said.

Along with his basketball team, Underwood goes to clinics where they teach disabled children what they can do while they are in their wheelchairs.

Underwood won MVP at the Western Conference Championship in Spokane, Wash., recently. Reed said that Underwood has the best work ethic of all the players on the team.

“I think he could end up being one of the top college players,” Reed said.

Susan said that some of Underwood’s teammates didn’t start in sports until their teenage years and that, “it’s harder for them to hone their skills. They need the time to learn their fundamentals.”

Underwood will be attending the University of Missouri in the fall and has won a $10,000 one-time grant. He is the only junior player from the Banner Wheelchair Suns to have won this scholarship. The university allows students to qualify for in-state tuition after their freshman year of college, so the scholarship will cover the out-of-state charge for his first year.

While he plays for the university’s wheelchair basketball team, Underwood wants to study sports psychology. Reed said that Underwood has the best work ethic of all the players on the team.

“I think he could end up being one of the top college players,” Reed said.

Underwood is planning to swim with a club team his freshman year and then try out for the national team. If he does not make the national team, he plans to retire from swimming.

O’Connell describes Underwood as a leader and said that he will do well in anything that he tries.

“His goal is different and bigger than everybody else’s, and I’m honored to have worked with him,” said O’Connell. Underwood is always a help to his team and shows other swimmers what they are capable of, according to O’Connell.

“Don’t give up just because you have a disability,” Underwood said. “A lot of disabled people look at what they can’t do, when they should be looking at what they can do.”

• Andrea Daly is a sophomore at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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