Meet East London Phoenix: The Game-Changing Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team

By Paige Kahn Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 23 December 2022

Meet East London Phoenix: The Game-Changing Women's Wheelchair Basketball Team
Amy Conroy, pro athlete, practices with her coach for a wheelchair basketball game.
Amy Conroy and her coach Michael Hanson-Morris often use defensive mannequins at individual practices. Image: Paige Kahn

"The things you regret are the things you don't do."

That's the mantra of Amy Conroy, three-time Paralympic athlete and a star player for East London Phoenix.

The University of East London (UEL) is home to one of four British Wheelchair Basketball's Women's Premier League teams — which kicked off its inaugural season in December 2021, and is the first ever league of its kind.

As Conroy darts around the on-campus court, swerving mannequins and demonstrating some serious chair-tipping skills, East London Phoenix head and assistant coaches Michael Hanson-Morris and Freddie Carty praise her as a role model for the team.

"When Amy first came, it was the equivalent of me meeting David Beckham," says Carty. "The other girls were so starstruck meeting her too."

East London Phoenix have won three of their six opening games, and think they have a good shot of winning the league.

Amy Conroy prepares to shoot a basket during wheelchair basketball practice.
Conroy has four European Bronze medals under her belt. Image: Paige Kahn

"It was quite a ballsy thing to do"

Conroy admits she never thought a league like this would even happen during her career, because many countries discussed it without following through. "It was quite a ballsy thing to do," she says.

"The fact that it's the first franchise for the university and it's a disabled sport that's not a token gesture — that's pretty powerful."

Before joining The Phoenix, Conroy began to resent playing where she was in Sheffield. She says the dynamic at UEL is much healthier for her, and has reignited her passion for the sport: "As soon as the league was announced, I knew I wanted to be part of it.

"I've always wanted to live in London, so I thought, why not!"

Amy Conroy defends the ball  from her coaches during wheelchair basketball practice.
"I've always wanted to live in London, so I thought, why not!" Image: Paige Kahn

"No one expected it"

East London Phoenix shocked the league at the start of the season when they defeated the Cardiff Met Archers by a whopping 24 points.

"The head GB coach kind of said, 'Oh yeah, we're not expecting much from you this year' and then we almost matched up to Loughborough Lightning!" laughs Conroy, "They're six paid funded professional GB athletes, and we're holding our own against them, so no one expected it."

The opening win gave Conroy's team an extra boost of confidence, giving them the belief they can win the whole thing: "I really think we can, just 'cause it would be absolutely a shake-up kind of thing," says Conroy.

Amy Conroy scores a basket during wheelchair basketball practice.
"I absolutely love it." Image: Paige Kahn

"Everything just clicks"

So what's the secret of the Phoenix's fiery start? The team is like a second family to Conroy, she says, and this strong bond helps the performance. "I've really fallen in love with the team dynamic. When you have that off-court kind of love for each other, then on-court you can give criticism in the moment and feedback because you know that when it comes down to it, we have each other's backs."

Head coach Hanson-Morris agrees: "They're a pleasure to coach," he says, "It's all been natural, we've not had a lot of time together as a team, but everything just clicks."

Portrait of Amy Conroy, wheelchair basketball star.
Amy Conroy's dad has a Phoenix costume that he plans to wear to the next home game. Image: Paige Kahn

"I want to be that"

Conroy has been into sports her entire life, before and during life with a prosthetic leg.

After winning her battle with bone cancer as a child, her father — one of her biggest fans — introduced her to wheelchair basketball. Conroy was reluctant to do it at first, concluding that she wasn't any good at the sport.

It wasn't until she watched a game on TV that she said to herself, "I want to be that."

Amy Conroy scores a basket as her coaches defend the hoop during wheelchair basketball practice.
"It's an environment that pushes you, but it's also welcoming." Image: Paige Kahn

Conroy's sister Alice is one of the team's newest members and is considered a non-disabled player.

"She's just a really big fan, kind of right from the beginning, right from the days when I was awful, and I'd get one-minute court time, her and my dad would always be there and then she'd kind of pass around the ball."

Which prompts Conroy to tell us her favourite thing about the sport: "The fact that you can be able-bodied or disabled, so it really is inclusive, you can play recreationally or have big dreams with it."

Amy Conroy shoots a basket during wheelchair basketball practice.
Amy Conroy demonstrates her serious chair-tipping skills. Image: Paige Kahn

"It's changed my life"

"It might sound cheesy, but it's changed my life," says Conroy, revealing that playing this sport has given her an incredible amount of confidence.

Before starting wheelchair basketball, she refused to wear shorts. "I would hide my leg," she says.

Amy Conroy passes the ball behind her during wheelchair basketball practice.
Conroy has been playing wheelchair basketball for 11 years. Image: Paige Kahn

But there are still struggles on the high-pressured basketball court — and the fear of underperforming.

"With any elite sport, there's always going to be setbacks, as depressing as it sounds," says Conroy, "There are often more lows than highs, so you just gotta kind of remember why you do it, what pushes you, what sets your soul on fire to make you keep coming back."

One of her biggest challenges was an injury she suffered in 2018. "It took me months and months to just straighten my arm again," she says.

Amy Conroy dribbles a basketball during wheelchair basketball practice.
"You can design the type of player you want to be and then just become that." Image: Paige Kahn

"Get out of your comfort zone!"

Conroy's biggest advice to beginners? "Just show up, put yourself out there, get out of your comfort zone!"

She says that doing anything new can be daunting, but emphasises that getting yourself there is the first step: "What's the worst that can happen?!"

Amy Conroy, wheelchair basketball star, holds up a basketball.
Conroy thinks the sport has gained more media attention because of the Paralympics. Image: Paige Kahn

"Be proud and embrace it, because it's not going to hold you back"

Conroy has a lot of big dreams for the sport, but the biggest ambition is to see its rise in popularity.

"I really hope it just grows because it's such a good game, and I think the sport is so cool for bringing people together, even if you're just doing it for fun, to meet other people, to get comfortable in your disability," she says.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of. Be proud and embrace it because it's not going to hold you back."

East London Phoenix welcome new supporters — why not go along to their next home match.