By Chris Wilson – on-behalf of BACT Media Unit

Rachael Gerke (r) receiving 2022 Gunners Wheelchair Defensive Player of the Year Award from Rohan Foy (l).

For the first week after having a tumor removed from her spinal cord, Rachael Gerke, then just 22, recalls staring intently at her toes and willing them to move.

“Before every surgery they tell you the worst-case scenario, but you think ‘it’s not going to happen to me’,” Rachel says.

“I still vividly remember the week after waking from that surgery, thinking ‘wiggle your toes’, but it never eventuated.”

This story needs to start here, because it shows how sport can have transformative power on a person.

Rachael, now 32, is a member of the Canberra Gunners wheelchair basketball, voted their best defender last season. She talks confidently about the team’s competitive edge and making amends for last year’s grand final loss.

“It still hurts, we should have won,” she laments.

But Rachael’s first introduction to wheelchair basketball was during four months of rehabilitation in a Sydney hospital, when she was adapting to life as a paraplegic.

“I was 22 at the time, when you go through rehab in hospital it’s pretty terrifying, getting used to your new body, not having as much control over what you used to,” Rachel says.

“They take you along to all the sports and I tried wheelchair basketball when I was in rehab, but I wasn’t ready. It was fear, I just wasn’t ready to put myself out there and be in that environment. It took me time to get the confidence before I was ready.”

On the eve of the NSW Waratah Wheelchair Basketball League season, Rachael is more than ready. So too is husband, Dean, who plays alongside her.

The couple moved to Canberra eight years ago and Rachael finally decided to conquer the fear that had overcome her in rehab.

“We were looking for a way to meet people and make friends, so we rocked up to a wheelchair basketball training session and fell in love with the sport, the team and all the guys that play. We haven’t looked back.”

The couple felt so welcomed, Dean, not in a wheelchair, soon joined training and games too.

Wheelchair basketball at the NSW Waratah League level is mixed gender and inclusive of players of all physical abilities. Players are assigned classification points from 1 to 4.5 – the higher the points, the more physical mobility a player has.

“I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch it happen, so I wanted to get out there and give it a crack,” Dean says.

“We get to play it together, to be on the court at the same time, it’s really special. It’s been great to take that journey with her.

“The transition into the chair was a steep learning curve for me, it was a unique experience. Between having to read the game, work the chair, and get that little ball in that little hole, they’re difficult skills.

“But being on the court and experiencing that with all these players helps you really enjoy the moment. That rebound, that shot or that pass by someone who is a classified low point player, that brings so much more to the team and the game.”

The Canberra Gunners wheelchair squad only formed last year for the inaugural NSW Waratah League. This year’s squad includes two-time Paralympian and wheelchair track and field athlete, Jake Lappin. The captain is Michael Gray, 41, who travels to Canberra every weekend from Albury with his son Jackson, 14, the youngest player in the squad.

Gunners coach Rohan Foy, a disability worker, is the driving force behind wheelchair basketball in Canberra. The Gunners grew from recreational wheelchair basketball club, the Canberra Chargers, which still holds weekly come and try sessions.

“We started with eight old wheelchairs and a rusty trailer that didn’t pass rego, now we have 22 chairs,” Rohan says. “We used to have two or three people turn up to throw the ball around, now we have about 25 turning up.

“I’ll often just approach people in wheelchairs, even at the grocery store, and ask if they’d like to give it a go. I had no interest in basketball prior to wheelchair basketball, but I’m passionate about accessible sport.”

Having once feared the sport, Rachael says she’s excited to see opportunities increasing for all.

“I wish I did it earlier. I’d recommend it to anyone with a physical disability, it’s a great way to stay fit, meet people and have fun,” she says.

“When I joined the team I was the only girl, now we have really great participation, our Gunners team would be one of the best in terms of female participation in the Waratah league”.

“Playing under the classification system it means there’s a spot for everybody. My disability is pretty severe, I don’t have use of my lower limbs or my core, so I rely on my arms for all movement on the court. When compared to higher point players who use their bodies to control their chairs. But I still have a really vital role on the court, I get to set the screens and make the defensive plays.

“The Waratah League has been an incredible experience. I’ve been playing wheelchair basketball for eight years and it was the first comp we’ve been in that has felt like a real competition. We are building really great rivalries with clubs, we have the association behind us, there’s travel and  proper classification. Having this tournament and feeling like we’re part of the Gunners family has made such a big difference to our sport.”

For more information on wheelchair basketball, including weekly Come & Try sessions for players of any ability, go to

The Canberra Gunners Wheelchair team commence their 2023 Waratah League Season on Saturday 24 June 2023, with three games at Niagara Park Stadium against Newcastle Falcons, Manly Warringah Sea-Eagles and Sutherland Sharks.

Dean Gerke (second from left) and Rachael Gerke (third from left) and 2023 Gunners Wheelchair teammates at Season Launch – March 2023