Emily Seelenfreund was diagnosed at birth with a disease that made her vulnerable to broken bones, and was enrolled in physical therapy at 6 months. By the time she was 5, the Hoboken native was outfitted with a wheelchair that helped her get around and was an active competitor in track and field events for the disabled. By the time she was 11, she began playing wheelchair basketball.
Within two years she found she was really good at the sport. It brought her championships, an athletic scholarship, and the chance to travel “all over the U.S.,” to Canada and Australia.
And next week, to Israel.
Seelenfreund, a 22-year-old guard who has “a pretty mild type” of osteogenesis imperfecta (aka Brittle Bone Disease, a congenital collagen deficiency that affects an estimated 20,000-50,000 people in this country), will be a member of the U.S. co-ed wheelchair basketball team in the Maccabiah Games. “I’m a good defender,” she says. “I’m very competitive.”
Seelenfreund will leave Israel two days before the end of the games to return to her job as a third-grade teacher, under the auspices of Teach for America, on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
Like many people in wheelchairs, she has strong arms. She does some weightlifting, but most of her strength comes from pushing her chair “every day.”
Like other wheelchair athletes, she will travel to Israel with a pair of chairs — one, which she uses daily on the street, and one, specially outfitted, for basketball.
Like other wheelchair basketball players, she’s strapped into her sports chair, to prevent her from falling out of it in case of a collision.
She has already suffered a broken arm from playing basketball. “It was just a broken arm. Anyone could hurt themselves playing.” She recovered, and went back to the court. How many other times has she broken bones? “I haven’t kept count.”
People who learn of her athletic background are often surprised, Seelenfreund says. “Most people haven’t heard of wheelchair basketball.”
The most-common question she hears: “Can you dribble?” Of course she can. She can also shoot, from as far away as the three-point line, and she can pass.
People sometimes ask, “Can you dunk?” Silly question. Of course she can’t.
Seelenfreund responds with a question: “Can you imagine my wheelchair flying 10 feet in the air?”
Seelenfreund is also a certified scuba diver.
A 4.0-GPA political science graduate of the University of Alabama (one of four colleges in the U.S. that offer both men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball programs), Seelenfreund will attend law school at Harvard University after she finishes her teaching assignment in New Mexico.
For the last month she has been back with her parents in New Jersey, training for her upcoming competition at the Jewish Community Center in West Orange. Her family is active in the United Synagogue of Hoboken congregation, where Seelenfreund also served as a summer camp counselor; she became bat mitzvah at Temple Sharey Tefilo Israel in South Orange, whose sanctuary and bimah were wheelchair accessible.
This year she hosted a seder for some friends on Passover at her home in Gallup.
Seelenfreund, who’s been in Israel twice before — once on a family trip, once on Birthright — was recruited to the Maccabiah team by an official whose specializes in disabled athletes. She accepted right away. “I love to travel. I love Israel.”
She was an alternate on the U.S. women’s basketball team in the Paralympics last year, but didn’t get to go to London.
The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro are on her mind, Seelenfreund says. “I would love it.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The Jewish Week.