RICHMOND, Va. — Hannah Smith doesn't know life without basketball
"For me, there really was no 'before basketball," Smith said. "I have a picture of myself on my dad's shoulders shooting a basket when I was a toddler."
Her passion for the game was not dulled because she had Spina Bifida and has never taken more than a few steps in her life.
Smith discovered wheelchair basketball at an early age. She also discovered how it made her and other kids like her feel less different in an able-bodied world.
"Especially in wheelchair basketball, there are so many people that are like you. I really treasure the feeling of being normal," she said. "When a wheelchair basketball player looks at me, they see a basketball player who's maybe not as good as them. Maybe better than them. But they don't see a wheelchair."
Brandon Rush, a basketball coach with Richmond nonprofit Sportable, saw Hannah's very humble beginnings in the sport.
"She was full of spunk. Always showing up with a good attitude and full of energy, ready to go," he said. "To see where she started and not being able to barely hit the net and to get to the point where she can actually make three-pointers now has been mindblowing."
Smith will be a sophomore studying elementary education this fall at Wisconsin-Whitewater, a school some 15 hours away from Richmond.
That she is in college at all is a drastic change from what she thought possible for herself just a few years ago.
"I never really knew I could go to college and live on my own," she said.
Smith's confidence in self-reliance came from an unlikely place.
While she loved basketball, she admittedly had no clue about NASCAR or the legends of the sport.
"I think I had heard of the Petty family. My dad always had the 43 matchbox cars so he would tell me about them. But I didn't really know," Smith said.
Kyle Petty, son of the King of NASCAR Richard Petty, lost his son Adam to a racing accident at the age of 19.
In Adam's honor, Kyle established the Victory Junction Camp for kids with disabilities and chronic medical needs.
To date, it has served nearly 100,000 children in ways that other camps cannot.
"Parents feel comfortable allowing a child to come to camp to fish, to go into the water park, to ride horses for the first time," Kyle Petty said. "That's the amazing part, to see these kids do things for the very first time at nine or 10 years old because they've never been in a camp situation or been allowed to do things like this."
Victory Junction hosts around 5,000 thousand kids each year. Hannah Smith has been one of those kids on four different occasions. Each trip to camp has taught her a little more about herself and what she can do, rather than what might hold her back.
"Going to Victory Junction basically opened all the doors for me and convinced myself and my parents that I could be independent one day. I could live independently and I could go to college," Smith said. "It gave me so much confidence in myself. Just knowing that I was able to do things that I never thought possible and that my parents weren't even sure was possible, it was amazing."
"It allows these kids to be the kids that they really are," Petty added. "It empowers these kids to use their imagination and dream about things that maybe before they came to camp, they were like 'well, I could never do that.'"
And after one year away at school, Smith cannot wait for that 15-hour ride back to college.
In the meantime, she's getting a head start on her future teaching career by coaching and mentoring younger kids who are getting their own start on not just basketball, but a more confident and independent life.
"For the kids that can't make shots right now, to see that she was in that same spot and to see how far she's come and continue to put in that hard work for the game and the sport of wheelchair basketball, I want her to show off more," Rush said.
"It shows them that they really can live life by themselves and they don't necessarily need as much support as they think," Smith added.
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