Rock Hill’s Speaks headed for Illinois

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Rock Hill Redwomen senior Kendall Speaks signed a letter-of-intent on Monday to play wheelchair basketball for the University of Illinois. Attending the signing ceremony are: from left to right, Cincinnati Dragons’ coach Jacob Counts, mother Amy Speaks, Kendall and father Jeff Speaks. (Tim Gearhart Sports Photo for The Ironton Tribune)

By Jim Walker

PEDRO — Being in a wheelchair almost all of her life would suggest that Kendall Speaks does not lead a normal life.

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But don’t tell her that.

Kendall Speaks

The Rock Hill senior has spent her life trying to make her life as normal as possible and she is taking that determination and focus to the next level after signing a letter-of-intent to play for the University of Illinois Fighting Illini.

Speaks was only 2 years old when she had a spinal epidural that paralyzed her and forever changed her life.

“I’ve grown up in a wheelchair since I was two, so that is all I’ve ever known. This is regular to me,” said Speaks.

“I felt left out because I wanted to play sports but I couldn’t play with my peers. Wheelchair basketball has brought a really big outlook on my like and really positive.”

Champaign, Illinois, is only about six hours away which is the closest of the six schools that offer wheelchair basketball at the college level.

“When I had the college visit, I just felt really at home. I liked coach Steph Wheeler. She can make me into a really good player and hopefully try out for the USA team and make the Paralympics,” said Speaks. “I love the atmosphere there. It’s a really good community.”

Speaks was discovered while on a visit to the Shriner’s Hospital in Illinois and the Chicago Skyhawks’ basketball coach saw her dribbling. He was so impressed he contacted Speaks’ current coach to get information.

As a member of the Cincinnati Dragons team, Speaks has to drive to Cincinnati twice a week to practice. The team plays more than 30 games a season plus tournaments.

Speaks has been playing wheelchair basketball for seven years.

Her high school head coach fhas been Jacob Counts who began coaching her when she was 11 years old,

“I graduate four seniors this year and Kendall being one of them. In that group, I got them all when they were in elementary or middle school,” said Counts who began coaching in 1999.

“They stayed with me for about eight years and it has been fun to watch them grow. They’ve all gotten better. We’ve sent all four to college programs. Kendall was right there with the boys as far as developing as an athlete and getting her to take her skills as far as she could.”

Although Counts said Speaks has grown and improved, he said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“I think Kendall will be a fantastic college player. I think it’s going to be great for her to get there. As a freshman, I feel like she’s going to find ways to get on the court,” said Counts.

“I think when she gets to be a junior or senior she’s going to be getting those upperclassman minutes and be a keystone to that team for sure.”

Speaks spends a lot of time on playing wheelchair basketball but it’s not her top priority. She focuses on her education that includes honor classes as well as college classes.

“I focus my academics because I want to get out of this area because I know being in a big city there are so much more opportunities out there. I knew that my academics and playing wheelchair basketball would be my way out of here,” she said.

Speaks is leaning toward a major in political science and to do more work regarding the American Disabilities Act

“I want to get into politics but I also want to be a lawyer. I want to be a motivational speaker,” said Speaks. “The ADA has done a lot for the disable community, but it can honestly do a lot more. I really want to change and revise those laws to make them better.

“I’ve always had a passion for disabilities awareness and if I see a little kid in wheelchair basketball or other sports, I want to show them that there’s more in life than what’s around here and you can do anything you put your mind to.”