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For a reason

John Gilbert collaborates with fate

If you looked at John Gilbert’s life on paper a few years back, you might have thought he was going nowhere fast. Gilbert is a paraplegic from a poor, single-parent home in a tiny and economically troubled Missouri town. Sometimes, Gilbert says, things were “skinny” around the house. When most people utter the phrase “Things happen for a reason,” it can sound trite. But coming from Gilbert you believe it. For although he blithely lets fate have its head in some aspects of life, in other realms he is champion of his own future.

Gilbert, BS ’10, a graduate student in MU’s College of Education, has seen London, Paris and Sydney from his wheelchair. Because of his talent and hard work, he has represented the United States internationally playing wheelchair basketball since 2004.

Apparently, Gilbert never looked at his life on paper.

The heart of Fairfax

One of the things that happened for a reason was his family’s move to Fairfax, Mo. When Gilbert’s parents broke up, his grandparents were in Fairfax, and they all came to love the openness of its people. “We stayed because of the heart of Fairfax,” he says.

“It’s a town with more cows than people — all 645 of us,” Gilbert says. He describes the town, bypassed by a highway and buffeted by competition from big-box stores, as economically on the rocks. But the locals are tight, he says. They adopted the Gilberts and made sure they had what they needed. “I love the heart of that place. Everybody knows everybody and waves when you pass. There are no police — the people handle that. If you spit off the bridge, everybody knows before it hits the ground.”

Parents, grandparents

At times in his life Gilbert has been angry about his father, who left the family when his mother was pregnant with Gilbert’s younger sister, Mary. But his mother, Robin Ewens, has been there. “She’s a caring, loving person who would bend over backward for you,” he says. Ewens worked various jobs — fast-food, daycare — to make ends meet. In 1996, when she was in nursing school, she was a passenger on a bus that crashed, and she broke her back. Since then, Ewens has worked little. Gilbert was 8 years old then, still running around and playing his favorite sport, baseball. Within a year, doctors diagnosed him with a spinal tumor, and the surgery he required left him partially paralyzed. Suddenly, he was in a wheelchair and needing his mother’s attention. “She needed that nursing knowledge to take care of me,” Gilbert says. But Ewens didn’t coddle the boy after he was in his wheelchair, and she even raised neighbors’ eyebrows by giving him chores such as hauling trash to the curb. “Tough love,” he calls it.

Gilbert also thinks about the course of his grandfather’s life in fateful terms. Robert Ewens is a Methodist minister who until 2009 had a church in Golden City, Mo. Then he moved to Chillicothe, Mo., to take on two churches. The extra money and closer proximity to Fairfax have been a boon to Gilbert’s family. “That’s not a coincidence,” he says.


In high school, Gilbert’s wheelchair basketball skills already were top notch. He led the Nebraska Red Dawgs team to a No. 13 national ranking. At age 17, as a junior, he earned a spot on the U.S. under-19 national team, and his international career was launched. That year, he competed in the Australian Youth Games. Since then he has played for U.S. under-21 and national teams. More than one college recruited Gilbert for his basketball abilities. But he came to Columbia in 2004 and played during the first year of Mizzou’s wheelchair basketball program. That was a rough year — the roster had five players, and the team lost every game.

Early on, Gilbert often wondered if he’d made the right call. “It was a leap of faith to move here,” he says. “But I had friends at Mizzou, the academics and overall environment are great, and it’s close to home. I wanted to play somewhere that meant something to me.”

Wheelchair basketball Coach Ron Lykins is glad Gilbert stuck it out at Mizzou. “John could have gone anywhere to play. He is a tremendous asset on and off the floor, helping promote the team on campus and throughout the community, educating people about the game and disability issues. His selflessness has really helped the program.”

In the four-tiered classification system of wheelchair basketball, Gilbert is a class 1 — the most severely disabled. He has almost no abdominal strength and must strap himself into the chair to play. Teams can field squads totaling 14 points. In the system, class 1 players count for one point, class 2 players, who are less disabled and generally stronger players, count two points, and so on up through class 4. “John is one of the top class 1s in the country,” Lykins says. “When you put less disabled guys on the court, you need somebody at the other end of the spectrum to balance it. So with John being so good and a class 1, that gives you flexibility in the lineup.”


Gilbert is good at math and science but leans toward science because he likes a certain fluidity in his life. “Two plus two will always be four, but science is always changing,” he says. And just to be certain the changes keep coming, the recently graduated biology major enrolled in summer 2010 as a master’s student in MU’s College of Education to become a science teacher. For some people, that could have been a bittersweet choice. Gilbert’s summer was free because he failed in April to make the Olympic team. But that’s OK, he says. At 23, he’s still young as wheelchair basketball players go, and he needed the time for his studies. Besides, he plans on playing international ball well into his 30s. His next goal: Make the U.S. national team for the 2012 Paralympics in England. “I’m very determined,” he says.

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