Snow Leopard Wings: the goal is to become Russian champions
One of Russia’s strongest parabasketball clubs moves towards new victories and makes plans
The spring of 2023 is marked by a series of bright wins for Snow Leopard Wings Parabasketball Club. At the Open Wheelchair Basketball Championship of Udmurtia in May, the Wings confidently won the gold. They become the best in the third leg of a large-scale 3x3 wheelchair basketball tournament in Saint Petersburg in mid-April, while in late April the Kazan team was too close to win its long-standing opponent BasKI from Petersburg at the 4th stage of Strong People’s League. In the end, they won the silver and want to take revenge at the next 5th stage. Read in a series of Realnoe Vremya’s reports about the history of Snow Leopard Wings, its creation, victories and plans. Part one.
As a separate sport wheelchair basketball appeared in the world almost immediately after WWII. The USA became the founders of the game where basketballers who were called up to the front, injured there but didn’t want to say goodbye to their favourite sport managed to adapt it to the conditions. This sport gained global popularity as early as the 1960s and was added to the programme of the Paralympic Games.
Wheelchair basketball wasn’t widely spread in the USSR, it was only in Russia’s contemporary history, in the early 1990s, the first team was created in Moscow. Later, parabasketball players appeared in Saint Petersburg.
The history of wheelchair basketball in Kazan began in 2009. Mintimer Shaimiyev was then the president of the republic who actively support the development of the sport in Tatarstan. Suffice it to remember how many sports venues, ice palaces, swimming pools were built and opened during his rule… On 31 May 2008, in a voting of the International University Sport Federation (FISU) in Brussels, Kazan outperformed Spain’s Vigo and South Korean Guangzhou in a stiff competition and won the bid to host the 2013 Summer University Games, which was an additional impulse to popularise a healthy lifestyle and develop sports, including inclusive ones. The sport that was new for the republic — wheelchair basketball — too found support in the Tatarstan government and personally the president. A team started to be created.
“The rumours that a parabasketball team was created appeared some six months earlier. Russia is Sports Power forum was held in Kazan in 2009, it was decided to organise a wheelchair basketball tournament during this forum. The first squad of the team turned out to be equipped at the Centre for People with Disabilities and mainly it consisted of neighbours living in one block of flats,” recalls Igor Samartsev, one of the old-hands of Snow Leopard Wings.
Igor Samartsev was injured at the age of 19: he was hit by a car in 1990. During the first seven years, the boy rarely left his home and then decided they life went on. He got a driving licence, bought a hand-operated car. And he immediately responded to the opportunity to do sport with the appearance of the basketball team.
Dinar Kamaleyev — another player of the first squad — was born in 1990.
“I have a life-long disability. I started playing basketball after receiving a call, they offered and I agreed. Igor is my neighbour. I dreamt of doing sport since my childhood, and when I turned 19, I received a call and I was happy to say ‘yes.’”
Vasily Kochetkov is the only pro-basketball player at Snow Leopard Wings who had game experience long before joining the team. He had played at UNICS’ second team, played for the first team in 2000. Then he performed for UNICS’ second squad for four years, got a knee injury, had a surgery… He thought he would have to put it paid, but destiny decided differently:
“We gathered boys in 2009, started to train. Necessary papers were submitted at the same time. Consequently, the official day of the team’s creation shifted to 1 January 2020,” Vasily Kochetkov remembered the club’s history. He became the first coach in the early days of the club and was the only until 2016.
In action right away
Most Snow Leopard Wings players, interestingly, had almost nothing to do with sport, not to mention basketball. They tried to use sports wheelchairs and play together a month before a tournament in September 2009.
They learnt how to play wheelchair basketball literally — in action and almost by touch. Nobody in the republic was familiar with the sport and what it needed. But they had the most important thing — a desire.
“Of course, wheelchair basketball has its own wheelchair riding technique, it is different, not like in everyday life. It is quick, sharp, agile. One has to get used to it. It took me some time to learn,” Igor Samartsev shared his memories. They faced the first problem almost immediately: “Our first wheelchairs weren’t designed for basketball. They were for dancing, weak. And the size wasn’t suitable.”
“We had Petersburg wheelchairs first, its material is thin. It easily broke. Then we have second-hand German wheelchairs. It has thick steel, they are heavy but unstoppable if you gain speed. And they are less manoeuvrable. Then thanks to TAIF JSC we bought these new ones, they are English: the pipes are thinner, more manoeuvrable but firm,” added Dinar Kamaleyev.
The Tatarstan players wanted to fight even in their first wheelchairs. After the tournament in Kazan, they went to Chelyabinsk. The athletes admit that the team then was strong, it had started to train earlier and had bigger financial support. While the Kazan players combatted with pure enthusiasm. The Ministry of Sport and the Russian Society of People with Disabilities helped them to travel to competitions as much as they could — they compensated for part of their costs. They paid modest scholarships. This money could hardly be called a salary for professional sport. Not everybody withstood th exhausting training, inconvenient wheelchairs and financial hardships
“Half of the team dropped out after the first tournament. They decided not to go on,” said Igor Samartsev. “Everybody had one’s own reasons. Somebody didn’t want to continue, somebody had health issues, for others it was very hard to sit in an ill-fitted wheelchair, some simple didn’t believe in themselves. Only four of us left from the previous team: me, Dinar, Vasily Kochetkov and Marsel Rakhmatullin. However, new players came. Andrey Chugunov, Ruslan Kozhevnikov, Vitaly Rakov, Marat, Rafik Safiullin came.”
Snow Leopard Wings joined the action right away. They weren’t afraid of taking lumps at least because they liked to play, strive for a victory. And their rivals started to give them way. Now BasKI team from Saint Petersburg is their main opponent. At that moment, they defeated athletes from Chelyabinsk, then Tyumen, Moscow.
“I cannot say for sure when we started to win medals. Perhaps, some two years after the team’s foundation. We won the bronze of the Russian Championship in 2011/12. We competed against Moscow then,” Dinar Kamaleyev shared his memories of the first victory.
“We couldn’t win for a long time. We didn’t have a big player. Then Vasily was allowed to play — this happened some two years after the team was founded. It took him a year to adapt. Then we began to defeat opponents, get closer to first places,” Samartsev backed his teammate.
“There was another Petersburg team. It appeared after BasKI split. The new team was named Neva Alliance and was set to win tournaments from the beginning. Their team was mainly foreign: athletes from Baltic states, there was a Czech, Finn, Belarus athlete, there were athletes from Ukraine. According to the rules, they couldn’t compete in the Russian Championship because teams with foreigners are forbidden there. But BasKI could do nothing with them,” Kamaleyev kept talking about their rivals and couldn’t hide his pride: “Whereas we defeated Neva Alliance about 2,5 years after the creation of the team. This was something! We didn’t it expect it either. We pushed at the end of the game and won it. And this repeated when we became more experienced: we won Alliance in tournaments for three years in a row.”
2018: rich in events
Those who considered that Snow Leopard Wings was just a short-term project were absolutely wrong. Some of the players left, new teammates appeared. The collection of medals expanded: cups, medals, diplomas. A year after the foundation, the team changed its training venue — it moved to Tulpar sports complex it has been training today too.
“We have had very warm relations with Snow Leopard Wings for over 13 years now. We always welcome the athletes before training and see them off after training. I know the club was offered to move to another sports venue, with a swimming pool, perhaps with better conditions, but the lads refused and stayed here,” Director of Tulpar Marat Khaydarov shared with Realnoe Vremya.
The issues the team has at Tulpar as resolved quickly when it is possible. Should we say that most competitions the club hosts or co-organises are also held at Tulpar? The complex has huge capabilities. It has already hosted a lot of republican, Russian and international competitions.
The team from Kazan not only didn’t go unnoticed. The games with Snow Leopard Wings became key in tournaments. Some players were candidates for joining the national team of the country, somebody was in the second team. They travelled abroad from time to time — pit themselves against teams from England, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Bulgaria…
Everything seemed to be fine but… At one point the team lost its coach.
“I went to Germany for 2.5 years to play, work there. I could have stayed longer but I didn’t want to. I returned to Russia, played in a team in Saint Petersburg first, then in Tyumen,” said Vasily Kochetkov.
“And we didn’t have a coach since 2016. We travelled abroad without any coach. Chugunov Andrey (Editor’s note: who had been the team captain for several years) and Ruslan Kozhevnikov ruled. Then several coaches changed, it turned out they didn’t have an idea of what wheelchair basketball was. The team started to have problems, disagreements, salary delays…” Samartsev explained the difficult period of the life of Snow Leopard Wings.
Everything changed in 2018. A director — Sergey Chistov — and head coach — Natalya Kuleshova –appeared at Snow Leopard Wings.
“I am an athletic coach myself. Before this team, I had been working in Saint Petersburg for six years. Natalia Kuleshova is a local, from Kazan. She works with the youth team at the Sports Academy. We found her as a basketball coach. I was also engaged in basketball in the 90s. We decided to try,” Sergey Chistov explained how the work with the team began.
“When I was offered to work with the team, I was scared. It was hard for me to make this decision because I had no idea what wheelchair basketball was and I had never seen people play it. But then I realised that if I was offered this, it means people need me and I must be here,” shared Natalia Kuleshova.
“I crossed the threshold of the court with difficulty on day one. But then it was fine. It was sheer pleasure to work with the team. The lads really work hard. They aren’t like those who work today because they are in a mood but tomorrow they don’t because there is none. They always work a hundred per cent. Yes, a lot of moments have to be considered: the workload, the load specifics, and what works for walking athletes doesn’t often work for our lads. Especially during the first year, I often picked an exercise simply forgetting they were in wheelchairs. They want, will, they are active! Today they are so close to me, it is a team with unlimited capabilities,” the head coach of the team shared.
Mutual understanding was found quickly. The goals are common:
“We have tried to become the country’s champions for several years now. We have become silver medallists seven or eight times, finished third several times. The team from Saint Petersburg BasKI reigns here. They are 13-time champions and don’t give way to anybody. But there is a peculiarity: they are tall. We have been playing closely with them for two years now. We lost to them in overtime in autumn. We lack a little,” Sergey Chistov told us his secret.
Another event that can easily be called life-changing in the team’s fate happened in 2018. Then captain of Snow Leopard Wings Andrey Chugunov invited devoted athlete, European motor cross champion in 2003, senior advisor to TAIF’s director general Radik Shaimiyev to have a look at the team’s training.
“He came to the court, quietly took a sit on the bench, watched the training. Then we talked, and Mr Shaimiyev said he wanted to help the team. He offered to think, make a cost sheet of what we needed and scheduled a meeting the following day,” Sergey Chistov recalls the break-or-make moment.
“The following day I and Mrs Kuleshova went to his office, sat, talked, explained. Then he said: ‘Let’s grow, create a club, not a team.’ We registered a club. The TAIF management back Mr Shaimiyev’s desire to help Snow Leopard Wings. This is how everything changed for us.”
To be continued…