Women to Watch: 5 Under 40

By |2018-09-07T10:40:48+00:00September 1st, 2018|
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Ola Ojewumi, Cody Unser, Kavita Krishnaswamy, Rose Hollermann and Santina Muha may not be household names yet, but they are making big impacts in their respective fields, and you’ll be glad we told you to keep an eye on their budding careers.

Santina Muha: Performer

by Ian Ruder

Name: Santina Muha
Disability: Spinal cord injury
Home Base: Los Angeles
Passion: Making you laugh
Follow: @SantinaMuha on Twitter and @njsantina on Instagram
Quick Fact: Muha no longer worries about “doing too much wheelchair stuff” in her comedy. “I’m realizing I need to do it because it’s funny and there’s a hole in the world that needs to be filled.”

In their attempts to land roles, actors often say they were born to play a part, but when Santina Muha read the description of “Debbie” in the script for the John Callahan biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, her reaction was even more visceral.

“The description was this aggressively cheerful brunette girl who can prove that there’s life after spinal cord injury, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s me,’” she says.

Muha got the gig, and months later, after filming with award-winning director Gus Van Sant and an all-star cast, Muha lived out one of her childhood dreams, rolling down the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of her first big movie. “It was everything I have been wanting,” she says. “Literally a dream come true.”

Even with the seemingly perfect fit between role and actor, Muha’s success in landing the part was testament to the hard work she has put in building her name as an actor and comedian, and the latest of many signs that it is starting to pay off. When she is not performing in or hosting shows for the Los Angeles theater run by the famed comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade, Muha is filming episodes for the third season of Netflix’s revival of the ’70s classic TV show One Day  At a Time, reprising her role as “Beth” from season two. She also has a number of smaller projects winding down, including a role as a non-wheelchair user in a mockumentary called Spinners: Izzy Lyon.

That’s the kind of packed schedule Muha envisioned for herself when she decided to take the plunge and move to Los Angeles five years ago. Living the life is proving as rewarding as she had hoped.

“My goal when I moved out here was to start getting called in for work,” she says. “Now, this is my life every day. I’m not waitressing. I’m not hostessing. I’m not delivering weed. I’m not driving for Lyft. I’m not doing any of that. I’m just focused on creating. And luckily, I’m able to do that.”

An Entertainer Emerges

Muha grew up as part of a large extended Italian family in New Jersey. Among her earliest memories are watching The Golden Girls with her Italian grandmother. Muha’s grandmother could barely speak English, but they both cracked up in response to Bea Arthur’s expressions.

Paralyzed in a car accident at the age of 6, Muha quickly discovered that, like Arthur, she could use humor to lighten the mood. “Whenever I made a joke, said something funny or did something funny, it broke the tension,” she recalls. “It added levity. And then it wasn’t sad anymore. That’s something that got ingrained in me from childhood, that if I could make people laugh, I could make the situation less sad … I want to make people happy. And I want to make people laugh.”

There is a lot more to Santina Muha than just a performer who will make you laugh. Photo by Dawn Bowery Photography.

Los Angeles offered Muha more opportunities to do just that, and after feeling uncertain following her first visit, on her second visit she put down roots. “I came out here on a Friday, I signed up for classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and I started class on a Monday,” she says. “Once I started those classes, that was it. I never lived back home again. Never.”

Muha loved UCB, and was getting connected and making friends when a medical emergency landed her in the hospital for three months. Her worries about how she’d cope thousands of miles from her family disappeared when she was inundated with visitors from UCB and her new Southern California friend group.

“It blew my mind,” she says. “It made me feel loved, which I think is really important whether you have a disability or not, whether you’re trying to be an actor or not, but especially in this field. To feel loved is so important because it’s the foundation. It was after that hospital stay that my career really started to pick up, and I think it has to do with the energy that I was able to harness from everybody.”

More Than a Wheelchair

Prior to her hospital stay, Muha had made an appearance on Comedy Bang! Bang!, an IFC television show based on a popular podcast. Soon after Muha got out of the hospital, the show invited her back as a recurring character. “That was really cool because the first time they hired me it was about the wheelchair, but then they were like, ‘Oh, that’s a funny girl. Let’s get her back.’ And that made me feel really accomplished.”

Establishing herself as an actor and not just “a wheelchair” is one of the tricky realities Muha navigates. When she started to hone her standup routine, she avoided wheelchair jokes out of fear of being pigeonholed. “I thought if I did too much wheelchair stuff, it would become my only thing. But now, I’m realizing I need to do it because it’s funny and there’s a — there’s a hole in the world that needs to be filled.”

Muha’s new approach is evident in her standup and it helped her craft her one woman show, That Girl in the Wheelchair. Beth Appel, UCB’s artistic director, has been impressed by Muha’s evolution.

“I’ve seen her perform a ton, and I’ve seen her get huge laughs from comedy that’s completely unrelated to her using a wheelchair,” says Appel. “And I’ve seen her use the wheelchair to make certain moments in shows even funnier than they would be otherwise. She definitely uses it to her advantage comedically when she can, but that’s not the only comedic value that she has.”

Just as she works to balance the “wheelchair stuff,” Muha is equally aware of the responsibility that comes with increased visibility. Looking back on her childhood following her injury, Muha remembers not having wheelchair-using role models to look to. “I couldn’t go to Spencer’s and find any posters [of wheelchair users] to put on my walls,” she says. “There was nobody. Nothing. I really wanted there to be someone, but even more than that, I wanted to be that person.”

“I still want to be that person,” she says. “I realize I’m not getting any younger, so the clock is ticking if I want to be a poster on anybody’s wall, but I’m working on it.”

Hollywood Fundraiser

In January Muha and fellow improviser Fiona Landers rallied a throng of UCB friends and local celebrities to raise over $2,000 for United Spinal Association with a one-night-only event titled “Don’t Just Stand There.” In addition to raising money, Muha wants to raise awareness of some of the obstacles facing wheelchair users.

Headlined by former Sopranos star Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who has multiple sclerosis and served as a monologist, all the event’s entertainers had to take the stage and perform using a wheelchair. “Within 15 minutes of being in the wheelchair they were like, ‘Oh my god, I never realized this theater is accessible, but the other UCB one still needs a ramp,’ and ‘How do you come out of the curtain?’” says Muha. “So just in that short amount of time it really had an impact.”

Muha thinks the approach has wider potential. “My ultimate goal is to have a platform where I can have politicians and celebrities live a day in t
he life of people with various physical disabilities so that we can start to incorporate the accessibility and the adaptations that we need in everyday life,” she says.

Ola Ojewumi: Protector

by Tim Gilmer

Ola Ojewumi

Name: Ola Ojewumi
Disability: Organ transplant recipient/cancer survivor
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Passion: Improving access to health care
Follow: Project ASCEND, project-ascend.org
Quick Fact: In 2011, Ojewumi founded a nonprofit that awards disabled youth college scholarships.

An ascending star in both Democratic politics and disability rights circles, Ola Ojewumi stands, or sits (as a power chair user), at the intersection of several identity groups as an advocate for all who are oppressed. She is best known in and around the Washington, D.C., area, where she gained valuable formative experience interning, first with the House of Representatives while still in high school, then with the Democratic National Committee, the Obama White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In addition to advocacy and activism, she founded two nonprofits and has served on the boards of numerous others. In 2017, she received the AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award.

At 27, she has already established herself as an effective analyst, speaker, writer and advocate for a number of important issues, especially health care, accomplishing what many would consider a lifetime of worthy achievements. But when I mention this to her, she waves it off, saying, “I’m a novice, really. I have so much to learn.”

One thing Ojewumi knows is discrimination, and she knows it from multiple angles. As a power wheelchair user with an obvious disability, a dual organ transplant recipient and cancer survivor, she experiences the kind of everyday discrimination that many NEW MOBILITY readers know too well. But as someone who can also stand and walk small distances, she often is the target of invisible-disability bias as well. As an African American, she represents another minority that must wrestle with more than its share of confining stereotypes, and as someone whose parents came to the United States from Nigeria and whose name speaks to her roots, she is often mistaken as an immigrant or non-English speaker. She sees herself not only as an American, but also as someone who is part of a multinational community. But mostly, she is a strong woman who seems destined to make a difference.

Early Life

Ojewumi says she was nondisabled for most of her childhood, but she didn’t move as fast as others. “My parents thought I had asthma,” she says. “Then one day at summer camp when I was in the sixth grade, I passed out, couldn’t keep up with the other kids. My mom drove forever to come get me and take me to a pediatrician, who diagnosed me with a heart condition. Then I had to have both heart and kidney transplants. After that it was wild.”

Ola Ojewumi is already a force in Democratic politics.

Ola Ojewumi is already a force in Democratic politics.

By wild, as if dual transplants as a pre-adolescent isn’t wild enough, she means that from that moment forward, her eyes were opened to all the identity markers that tend to skew the way we are seen and treated by others, whether we welcome them or not, especially in high school. “I hated high school,” she says, but not for the ‘usual’ reasons. “Don’t get me wrong, I was born and raised in Beltsville [Maryland], one of the richest black communities in the country, but in high school I saw how a zero tolerance attitude toward black girls was the norm that led to many being pushed out of school. If you were not in class by the time the bell rang, you were automatically punished. I ended up getting detention for being caught between classes and would get deductions for being late. I was told, ‘you had a heart transplant, but you should be over it now.’ They knew that fact but still punished me — as if they knew what it was like to be me.”

She points out that educational research shows that black girls are seen as troublemakers who are treated more harshly than white girls for the same infraction.  “Labels lead to dropping out, where making money becomes more of a priority than getting an education.”

In her case, race, gender and her hidden disability worked against her (she became a wheelchair user after high school). But she’s quick to add that some of her schoolmates, many of whom come from less affluent neighboring towns, had it tougher. “My school, High Point High School, was also known as Knife Point or Gun Point. These kids went through hell in their own personal lives. Last year a mother was killed in front of her child.”

Finding Her Voice

Her own experience plus empathy for oppressed people led her to actively seek ways to help others early in life. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a bachelor’s in government and politics and was active in the UMD Public Leadership Program. While in college she founded the Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Foundation, collaborating with local politicians to provide hundreds of teddy bears to children in hospitals across the United States. On the cusp of graduating, she founded another nonprofit, Project ASCEND, which awards college scholarships to at-risk teens and provides grants that help youth groups advance public service projects not only in the United States, but also in West Africa and Guatemala.

In April, on Tax Day, she braved very cold temperatures in her power chair to speak at an outdoor rally in Washington, D.C., protesting the Trump administration’s tax bill. Passed by Congress, the new tax law gave wealthy Americans the lion’s share of reduced taxes while slashing the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act and putting Medicaid recipients and people with disabilities in danger. President Trump also issued an executive order that bypasses Congress and endangers the lives of Americans with costly pre-existing conditions, meaning anyone with a serious disability.

Ojewumi is not afraid to speak her mind. As someone who embraced the Obama White House and was nurtured by Democratic Party leaders, she doesn’t hesitate to single out what she sees as an attack on her mentors. “I don’t think President Trump really cares about health insurance. He cares about erasing the legacy of Obama. This is about ego. We are expected to accept millions dying so he can undo what Obama did.”

But Ojewumi is anything but a defeatist. She is a fighter with a bright future. “Yes, I am sick of it all, but I know it will be different in 20 years.”

Those of us with disabilities need a strong voice like hers, and fortunately for us, she already has an impressive start as a well-connected, dynamic leader. As she urged at the Tax Day rally in April, “People with disabilities, people in wheelchairs, our rights matter. Make sure your movements are inclusive of everyone, from every background. We can really change the world together.”

by Cindy Otis

Cody Unser

  Photo courtesy of PADI

Name: Cody Unser
Disability: Transverse myelitis
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Passion: Teaching OB-GYN residents about disability
Follow: Cody Unser First Step Foundation, www.codysfirststep.org
Quick Fact: Unser says scuba diving is “pure freedom from the gravity I feel in my wheelchair every day.”

Cody Unser is used to the wide eyes and surprised silences she gets when she tells medical students about the time she involuntarily urinated on her partner while they were having sex. It is one of the personal stories Unser, 31, shares as a paralyzed woman when she presents to medical students and professionals about the sexual and reproductive health needs of people with disabilities.

Unser’s work with the medical community started the same way all her advocacy work has since she became paralyzed at age 12 — she saw a problem and decided to use her voice to try to fix it. Unser, whose spinal cord was damaged at C7 by transverse myelitis, has lived and worked all over the country, and no matter where she went, she discovered the same inadequate access to obstetrics and gynecological care. Doctors were woefully unprepared to accommodate her or to answer her questions. With a little research, Unser discovered most medical schools do not have a set curriculum focused on treating people with disabilities.

Since 2016, Unser has traveled all over the country to talk about the sexual and reproductive health needs of people with disabilities to help the medical community be better prepared. Among the places she has presented are the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Annual Clinical and Scientific Meeting, the Council on Resident Education in Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of New Mexico and Oklahoma State University.

Cody Unser with OB-GYN residents she trained.

Cody Unser with OB-GYN residents she trained.

“Women with disabilities want to have loving and fulfilling sex lives and to also have families,” Unser says. “But there are physical challenges and attitudinal barriers that prevent individuals from receiving proper care.” Most medical offices do not have accessible exam tables for wheelchair users, for example, and doctors often make unfounded assumptions about their disabled patients.

Unser recalls one of the times she had to be lifted onto an exam table at an OB-GYN office. “The doctor came in, and I explained everything about my paralysis. Even after my long explanation, I started spasming and he patted me on the head saying, “There, there. Don’t be nervous.” Once he did that,” she says, “I felt defeated and left the clinic feeling that he didn’t listen to anything I had just said. Why should I care about my sexual health if he didn’t?”

Incidents like that fuel Unser’s educational efforts. “I don’t want other girls and young women with disabilities to feel defeated and that they don’t matter when they go to an OB-GYN,” she says.

During her presentations, Unser spends a lot of time talking with students about the differences between treating nondisabled and disabled women, as well as the range of disabilities. “A woman with a spinal cord injury may have different medical needs and desires than a woman with spina bifida. I tell them they need to be sensitive to these differences,” she says. “Many people think that having a disability means that you are not sexually active.” Having misplaced assumptions can lead to discriminatory statements and inadequate medical care, according to Unser.

New Front, Old Passion

Before working with the OB-GYN community, Unser worked with Johns Hopkins University to study transverse myelitis and multiple sclerosis and was also part of the embryonic stem cell research movement to bridge the gap between medical researchers and politicians. Her work in disability advocacy in the medical community led to a master’s degree in public health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health this year.

But Unser’s advocacy work began long before. After she was paralyzed from TM in 1999, she created the Cody Unser First Step Foundation. The foundation focuses on raising awareness of TM, advocacy and creating quality of life programs for people with disabilities.

One of the foundation’s biggest and longest running initiatives is its adaptive scuba diving training program called Cody’s Great Scuba Adventure. Unser, who is scuba certified herself, says diving is “pure freedom from the gravity I feel in my wheelchair every day.” Diving was something she always wanted to do before she became paralyzed. Once she felt the freedom of the water after she was paralyzed, she wanted other people with disabilities to have the same opportunity [“Cody Unser, Beauty in Deep,” March 2010].

CGSA offers adaptive scuba events all over the country and partners with several disability groups and organizations to get people with disabilities certified in diving, including wounded veterans. Unser’s involvement in a study of the neurological and psychological effects of scuba diving on paralyzed veterans led to her induction into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame as the first woman with a disability. Most recently, CGSA started a program at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Spinal Cord Injury Center to train physical and occupational therapists in adaptive diving so that they can teach their clients.

Unser knows she has a long road ahead of her in her advocacy work. On the medical front, her goal is for any woman with any disability to be able to go into any OB-GYN clinic in the country and access the services without physical or attitudinal barriers. She believes the long-term solution to ensuring proper OB-GYN care will come from having a permanent curriculum on disability issues that can be developed and taught at every medical school and OB-GYN residency program.

Unser also encourages women with disabilities to be vocal about their medical needs. “You have to be your own advocate. No one else is going to know exactly everything that is going on with your body.”

After almost 20 years of learning and fighting, Unser is a confident and forceful advocate, undaunted by the scope of the tasks she has set out to conquer. She can see a future where any woman can walk or roll into her OB-GYN’s office and get equal access to the care she needs. “I’m only one person,” she says, “but I am determined to make sure it happens.”

Kavita Krishnaswamy: Inventor

by Reveca Torres

Kavita Krishnaswamy

Name: Kavita Krishnaswamy
Disability: Spinal muscular atrophy
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Passion: Autonomy for people with physical disabilities
Follow: Computer Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, csee.umbc.edu/~kavi1
Quick Fact: Krishnaswamy rolls into her classes using the BEAM robot.

While lots of people with disabilities talk or joke about a near-future where they can rely on robot caregivers, Kavita Krishnaswamy is working to make that near-future a reality. Krishnaswamy, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is pursuing her doctorate in assistive robotics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Driven by her personal experience with disability and a passion for learning and innovating, Krishnaswamy dedicates her research to projects that increase independence and quality of life for people with disabilities.

Among the many prototypes Krishnaswamy and colleagues have built or proposed are robotic arms that help with repositioning, specialized air mattresses and a motorized commode chair. “She had the idea for an inflatable mattress with independently controllable segments/bladders to help relieve pain from staying in the same position for too long,” says her doctoral advisor, Tim Oates, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at UMBC. “She developed a software prototype of the accessible control interface, convinced a team of mechanical engineers in their capstone course to build a prototype, and leveraged that into an internal UMBC grant to explore commercialization. I’ve never seen a student so adept at driving from concept to product while galvanizing support from a variety of sources. … Kavita’s drive and ability to get things done are astonishing.”

Kavita KrishnaswamyIt is possible that none of these visions would have seen the light of day if Krishnaswamy hadn’t seen a video of a surgeon operating remotely in another country. “It caught my attention,” she says. “If someone can do a remote surgery, then there can be remote caregivers. Even people with disabilities should be able to use an interface to help another person remotely.” This realization inspired her to explore robotics and how the field could alleviate some of the need for caregivers and create more independence for people like her.

Krishnaswamy requires personal care assistants for a large part of her day. Between her mother, who serves as her primary caregiver, and two women who have worked with her for a combined 16 years, she feels lucky to have reliable help. At the same time, she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to find competent caregivers who stay for a long time. “Sometimes I’ve used CARE.com or word of mouth, but I shouldn’t be constantly stressed to figure out who is going to help me for the day,” she says. “I want to lose my stress in that area. I want a good robot that can safely help people with severe physical disabilities and then that wouldn’t be a problem and I would worry less.”

Further complicating Krishnaswamy’s pursuits is her limited mobility. “Because of my physical circumstances, I can’t travel,” she says. “I’m limited to my home. I had been taking classes using Skype or Google Hangouts, but I wasn’t able to network and form research collaborations.” Introducing her ideas to advisors was challenging until she found an enthusiastic and supportive advisor in Oates. Krishnaswamy began to use Beam, a rolling robot that allows users to interactively videoconference with a remote location, to have a telepresence in the classroom and collaborate with classmates from home. She has also been able to use Beam to attend and present at conferences.

Finding Her Voice

Krishnaswamy is currently the only woman on a team of six men working on a research collaboration in Switzerland. “I feel like I’m different, but I also feel I am capable of sharing my ideas and skills with them,” she says. “Sometimes I feel intimidated, other times capable. They are a great example because they have never made me feel inferior. I’ve been treated respectfully and they value my intelligence and skills.”

Other situations have not been as welcoming. “Sometimes I was the only woman in class,” she says. “It can be uncomfortable. They don’t know how smart I am. On top of that, add the disability! They don’t seem to understand I have the same amount of intelligence and I am capable. Sometimes, even if professors treat me fairly, the way they speak to me sends a different message. I can tell they don’t have high expectations for me. It’s male-dominated and nondisabled, so I had to work three times as hard to prove I am capable.” Krishnaswamy credits some of her leadership skills to her female mentors, Professors Janet Rutledge and Renetta Garrison Tull from UMBC, and Professor Patricia Ordóñez at the University of Puerto Rico.

Recently, Krishnaswamy found herself on the other side of the mentor relationship, mentoring a nondisabled man at the University of Washington. When they first met, the student was not planning on continuing his education, but after talking with Krishnaswamy, he changed his plans. Today, he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University. “I feel proud that I could be a mentor to someone the complete opposite of myself and I can also be a mentor for students with disabilities,” she says.

So what’s next? Krishnaswamy has been selected to participate in this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, which connects top student engineers and scientists from universities around the globe with the world’s leading scientific researchers. Only 200 people receive the prestigious invite. She has also been invited to participate in the Disability:IN Rising Leadership Academy.

Her long-term goal is to become a faculty researcher. With her work in the field of robotics, we might soon see a transformation in independence and quality of life for people with disabilities. She hopes that society is more aware of people with disabilities and wants to change the perception of what people can or cannot do. Whether she is doing that through her research or by simply being the female force that she is, keep an eye out for her progress and achievements.

For more on her research, visit csee.umbc.edu/~kavi1.

Rose Hollermann: Athlete

by Seth McBride

Rose Hollermann

  Photo by Loren Worthington

Name: Rose Hollermann
Disability: Spinal cord injury
Home Base: Elysian, Minnesota
Passion: Winning championships
Follow: www.teamusa.org/para-wheelchair-basketball/athletes/Rose-Hollermann
Quick Fact: As a sophomore at the University of Texas, Ar­lington, Hollermann won the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Collegiate Player of the Year Award, and led the UTA Lady Movin’ Mavs to their first national championship.

It’s 2012, with six seconds remaining in the Paralympic semifinal for women’s wheelchair basketball, and Team USA has cut a 10-point deficit to Australia to one. Following two missed Aussie free throws, Rose Hollermann, the youngest player ever selected to a USA women’s wheelchair basketball Paralympic team, rolls to the basket, catches a tough pass and centers herself for a shot. As her front end rides up on her defender’s wheels, she shoots.

The ball bounces off the back rim and falls to the side where her teammate rebounds the ball and quickly sinks a putback layup. But the whistle blows.
Inexplicably, the referee has called a shot clock violation even though the ball clearly hit the rim. There is no review, no consultation with a replay center in New Jersey. Australia is awarded possession and they inbound to seal the win.

“That was a heartbreaking moment for me within my career,” Hollermann says. “It’s probably the toughest loss I’ve ever had. But it was also a really good thing for me to go through, because it motivated me, and it pushed me.”

An Early Start

At 5 years old, Hollermann was in a car accident with her mother and three brothers in which she sustained a T11-12 incomplete SCI. By 6, she was starting sports programs at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute near Minneapolis, Minnesota. “My mom really wanted me to be active and involved in things,” she says. “And she believed that I wouldn’t be able to really find what I loved if I didn’t try all the different sports. So I tried everything.”

Wheelchair basketball, track and field, sled hockey and swimming were favorites of a youth spent in motion. Hollermann first got in a basketball chair when she was 7. At that age, “It’s more of a fun thing. And it’s little chairs, little wheels, all the cute little things,” she says. “But we had a prep team … that’s where I got the foundation for my fundamentals defensively and offensively, learning how to play big-wheel defense and those critical things.”

Of growing up with a disability, Hollerman says, “I don’t remember what it was like to be walking around and all that stuff. So it’s just my norm, which makes it more positive. … In terms of sports, it gives me an advantage, because I’ve been playing and using a wheelchair my whole entire life.”

And Hollermann has certainly exploited that advantage to its maximum benefit. She had already been playing wheelchair basketball for eight years when, at the age of 15, she was invited to her first national team selection camp. She had few ambitions of making the team, but was excited to see what the top level of the sport looked like. As to what struck her the most, she says, “I’m a very competitive person, so just seeing that competitive fire in all the girls, and how committed they are, and seeing a group of teammates that were so passionate about the sport.”

Growing Up, Quickly

Hollermann did make the team. But she knew she wasn’t experienced enough to warrant playing meaningful minutes at that level, so she spent the summer of 2011 traveling to colleges and camps to play as much high-level basketball as possible. “That was a great experience for me as an individual,” she says. “I learned how to do laundry. I learned how to cook. I learned how to do all those things.”

It was an early initiation into the world awaiting her after high school when she joined up with Team USA. There, instead of being surrounded by equally immature undergrads, she found herself immersed in a group of strong role models. “I had 11 girls and women that I could look up to. And they were all very respectable, intelligent, hard working, great athletes who were on very good paths in life and took me under their wings and tried to mentor me and teach me.”

Her education was quick. By 2012, Hollermann had already emerged as a role player for the U.S. squad, a 16-year-old that her coaches and teammates trusted enough to play 10-20 minutes a game on the biggest stage in the sport.

Learning from Loss

The 2012 Paralympics were a bittersweet experience, but Hollermann did what all great athletes do, and used it as fuel to improve her focus and commitment. The biggest hurdles in her continued development, she says, were mental. “The hardest thing was just decision-making, being able to do stuff fast but within control and then being able to make reads and decisions off of it,” she says. “I think it was frustrating at times, because I had the physical ability to do it, I just didn’t have the mental maturity … and I had to learn it.”

Could pro basketball be in Rose Hollermann’s future?

Could pro basketball be in Rose Hollermann’s future? Photo by Loren Worthington.

Her national team experience eased her transition to college ball. As a sophomore at the University of Texas, Arlington, during the 2015-16 season, she won the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Collegiate Player of the Year Award, on the way to leading the UTA Lady Movin’ Mavs to their first national championship. Her stat line from the championship game — 35 points, nine rebounds and seven assists — sealed her bid for tournament MVP.

Following the national championship, Hollermann immediately went back to work with the national team, which had been having an up and down run since London. But this USA team had the right combination of experience, talent and cohesion. “We just came together. We understood what each other needed. We understood how to communicate through every situation, and we just bound together … and everyone just clicked at the right time,” she says.

Led by players such as Becca Murray, Desiree Miller and Hollermann, who had all been part of the London heartbreak, USA went on a tear at the 2016 Paralympics, outscoring their opponents in the group stage by more than a 2-1 margin and winning the knockout rounds by double digits. A decisive win over Germany capped off the team’s dream run. The final seconds are ingrained in Hollerman’s memory. “There’s three, two, and all the girls starting to cry already on the court, and the buzzer sounds. And the bench storming,” she reflects. “That was great.”

The Next Chapter

So what do you do after you win a gold medal? If you’re Hollermann, a lot. Now 22, she’s a year away from graduating with a dual degree in elementary education and German from the University of Texas, Arlington. She wants to play professional basketball in Europe, where there’s a coed league in which she could potentially make a living doing what she loves. She wants to go to graduate school, but she’s not yet certain what for. Tokyo 2020 already shines on the horizon.

With 10 of 12 players leaving after Rio, Hollermann has gone from mentee to mentor. The same fire and motivation is still there, but it’s turned more outward now, toward teaching and setting an example for those who don’t yet know what it means to be a champion.