Tara Feser is the wheel big deal in Canadian women's basketball.
Her contributions on and off the court were recognized by Wheelchair Basketball Canada as the 2010 female athlete of the year.
"It's pretty cool because it's such a big honour," Feser said Tuesday after arriving home from Canada's championship victory at the Paralympic Cup.
The St. Albert Paralympian was en route to Manchester, England with Team Canada when the announcement was made at the recent Canadian women's wheelchair basketball league (CWBL) national championship at Saskatoon.
"I was really shocked," said the tournament all-star with the Edmonton Inferno. "It means a lot because it's not only those girls at the tournament but it's for all across Canada as well for the entire year."
The award is presented to a player who exemplifies fair play and sportsmanship, is a leader in the community, serves as a positive role model and is a superior player.
At the awards ceremony, Feser was described as one of the most approachable, well-liked, fair, friendly, helpful, sportsmanlike and committed athletes this country has to offer.
A glowing list of accomplishments cited Feser's passion for the sport reached far beyond her desire for medals or all-star status as a committed coach, volunteer, board member and programmer with her home clubs.
The national team co-captain was also described as a strong and consistent scorer focused more on the team game: passing, defence, rebounding, picking and leadership. When Feser's teams needs her the most, she is able to score points from in the paint, behind the stack, at the foul line and even behind the three-point line.
"It's pretty humbling, actually," said Feser, a national team member since 2008. "It's the biggest individual award of my career."
Tune-up for worlds
The City of Edmonton recreation program manager would go on to play a major role in Canada's performance at the Paralympic Cup, a warm-up for worlds next month at Birmingham, England. In the final, Feser was second in team scoring with 12 points and added seven rebounds in the 62-46 victory over the Netherlands as Canada finished the tournament undefeated.
"Our coach [Bill Johnson] said we had to learn how to win and that's what we did," Feser said. "Our offence was always there but our team defence is what took us to the next level."
The four-time defending world champions are ranked fifth overall after finishing fifth at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. The United States is first, followed by Germany, Australia and Japan.
"At the tournament the other teams came to us individually as well as the coach and said 'Wow. We're shocked. We're actually scared of you.' Before they just kind of wiped us out of the whole medal round and thought Canada was just developing now," said Feser, one of eight players on the roster from the 2008 Paralympic team. "Winning it really gave us a sense of what our team can do. We're not even near to our potential yet and that's the exciting part. We have a ways to go and we only have a month or so to do it but we're ready for the challenge."
Canada rebounded smartly after failing to make the finals last month at the North American Cup (2-3 record and lost the semifinal to Japan 63-59 at Birmingham, Ala.) and the Joseph F. Lyttle Tournament (3-5 record and lost the third-place game to the Netherlands 79-44 at Warm Springs, Ga.).
"We surprised ourselves," Feser said. "Our results in those tournaments weren't what we wanted so we wanted to come back pretty strong but we didn't think we would come back as strong as we did at Paralympic Cup. We're happy that we moved forward but we didn't think we would make that many strides ahead in that short period of time.
"The turnaround was definitely teamwork. It showed on the court how well we trusted each other and it showed in the scores I guess too."
Canada dominated the field while outscoring its opponents 242-163 through four games. The closest margin of victory was by 16 points in the final.
"The confidence was there for everyone offensively. Whenever someone got the ball we shot it, rather than we've got to get it to this person because they're the only person that can score," said Feser, who won NCAA women's wheelchair basketball championships with the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in 2009 and 2010
In the round robin Canada defeated England 56-30, Australia 58-42 and the Netherlands 66-45. In the final the teams exchanged leads six times before baskets by Feser and Janet McLachlan of Vancouver in the last 90 seconds before halftime put Canada ahead for good. Canada outrebounded the Netherlands 39-29 and had 19 assists compared to eight for the sixth-ranked team in the world.
"We played the same game we played [in the round robin] against the Netherlands, which helped us confidence-wise and because of that we dominated," said Feser.
She did most of her damage at the Paralympic Cup coming off the bench and shot a tournament personal-best 51 per cent from the floor in Canada's first win against the Netherlands.
Feser, 30 and the rest of the national team gather in Ottawa on Monday for a training camp before leaving for Berlin for final preparations before worlds start July 5. The breakthrough at the Paralympic Cup gave Canada a good idea what it will face at worlds.
"Everyone we played is in our pool at worlds except for Mexico and we played them [in Georgia and won 62-46] so we're quite confident going into it now."
As for the CWBL nationals, the Infernos' six-year championship reign ended with a 50-43 loss to the BC Breakers.
"It was a good game. We just didn't shoot very well at all but if we had to lose to someone I was just glad we lost to B.C. They had never won it before. They've been fighting for many, many years for that title and unfortunately we had to let them have it," said Feser.
The five-foot-11 post player is classified as a 4.5 in the point system used in wheelchair basketball because she has full mobility while sitting and can bend up and down as well as side to side. Points range from 1.0 to 4.5 based on level of ability and the five players on the floor must not exceed 14 points in total.
The other 4.5 hoopster on Canada's 12-player line-up is McLachlan. The six-foot Crimson Tide teammate of Feser was named MVP at the Paralympic Cup (averaged 24 points and 16 rebounds per game) and the CWBL nationals (15 point and 17 rebounds for the Breakers in the final).