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Maccabiah Games'My disability is my greatest motivation'

Once homeless, para athlete Freya Levy finds a home at the Maccabiah Games

Levy, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a teenager, has beaten the odds to compete globally in wheelchair basketball: ‘I try to do as much as I can, while I can’

Freya Levy. (Screenshot/Twitter)
Freya Levy. (Screenshot/Twitter)

Just six years ago, Freya Levy was living out of her family’s car in the southern British coastal town of Southend. Now, at age 26, Levy has overcome incredible obstacles to become one of parasports’ most impressive multi-athletes competing at this year’s Maccabiah Games.

In 2010, 14-year-old Levy was playing soccer for her school’s team when she fell down and couldn’t get back up.

“That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be able to play able-bodied sport anymore,” she told The Times of Israel. She would later be diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease that progressively erodes muscle in the body and is currently incurable.

“It’s left me unable to walk, raise my arms above my chest, I have a weak diaphragm and eventually will lose the ability to smile and close my eyes at night to sleep,” Levy said.

With her own body seemingly fighting against her, Levy did not give up sports, and instead doubled down on her efforts.

After that initial fall, Levy said she “went home that night and found wheelchair basketball.” That year, she joined a local team and then went on to play for the Great Britain squad at the European Wheelchair Basketball Championship three times, winning a slew of medals.

“My disability is my greatest motivation,” she said. “The future is uncertain. I don’t know how far my disability will progress and if I’ll be able to play sports for much longer so I try to do as much as I can, while I can.”

Levy was dealt another major life blow at age 20 in 2016, when she was made homeless after her landlord sold their home.

“It was hard to continue to compete and train when I was having to sleep in my car,” Levy said, adding that the traumatic experience has motivated her to become a public housing advocate in the UK.

She ultimately moved to a building typically reserved by the government for elderly people, the only accessible option available to her in her condition, after a district council had first granted her an emergency housing option in an apartment with a broken elevator.

Due to local ordinances regarding governmental sheltered housing, Levy missed a chance to compete on the 2016 Paralympics Great Britain wheelchair basketball team, as she was required to sleep in the apartment every night and thus could not train with the team.

All of this took an emotional and physical toll on her. “My energy was spent on finding somewhere to sleep that night and then somewhere more permanent,” Levy told The Guardian at the time.

 

Despite this obstacle, she immersed herself even deeper into parasports, branching out into rugby and even ice hockey. “I love playing ice hockey because unlike wheelchair basketball and rugby league, we play in sleds so it’s an opportunity to be out of my wheelchair and still compete and be physically active,” Levy said. “It’s a brutal sport, but I love it.”

It was this kind of grit that caught the attention of four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson. In 2016, Levy was selected as a Michael Johnson Young Leader by his foundation, an honor that aims to select athletes who display perseverance and leadership qualities.

“Michael Johnson is an incredible inspiration for what he’s done during his athletic career but also after his retirement from sport,” Levy said. She’s even taking a page out of Johnson’s playbook and is considering a career in sports commentating.

Levy is competing in this year’s Maccabiah Games only in the wheelchair basketball tournament, on a mixed-sex team comprising players from around the world, against three squads formed from a mix of Israeli para athletes.

Being a Jewish athlete, she said, can come with certain drawbacks. “I’ve been fortunate to not experience antisemitism within sport, but of course, there is still the perception that Jews can’t be good at sport,” she said.

“I’ve experienced antisemitism when I was younger. I was laughed at and told to ‘put your Star of David away, you Jew,’” she recalled. “I think that’s why I love coming to Israel so much. It’s safe here. “

Her squad has already gone viral throughout their run. During their final group stage game, her teammate Alon Dorron launched a buzzer-beating three-pointer from half-court, cementing a 35-34 win for their team. In a move that would seemingly never be replicated anywhere else, both teams cheered the final shot.

While Levy was hoping for a gold-medal win at the competition, her team ultimately fell short and ended up in fourth place. But Levy said she was honored to take part nevertheless.

“To see parasports involved in the games again is a great honor,” she said, “and I hope it will inspire other athletes to come and compete in future games.”

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