The values and lessons learned in youth sports are indispensable.
That’s the message that Patty Cisneros Prevo wants high school athletes to remember.
“Be coachable. Be open to constructive criticism and feedback,” she said. “Just being coachable will really help you in all facets of your life, in school, in your career and in sports.”
Cisneros Prevo graduated from River Forest in 1996. She played basketball, tennis, cross country and track. She also was in the auxiliary corps, the band, was Miss Ingot Spirit, Miss Basketball, class president, pep club, Spanish club, National Honor Society and queen court, in addition to being valedictorian.
Cisneros Prevo was paralyzed in a car accident near Indiana University in Bloomington during her freshman year of college. She was asleep in the back seat of the car and doesn’t remember anything until waking up in the hospital.
She injured her T11 and T12 vertebrae in her spinal cord, rendering her paralyzed from the waist down.
“(My doctor) came in and I was unsure of my situation and he said, ‘You’re never going to walk again.’ Then, he just left the room,” Cisneros Prevo said. “It was pretty harsh but it was the best thing, looking back, because then I was able to move forward a lot quicker with my life.”
Rehabilitation lasted three months, building strength and learning things like sitting up, transferring from a chair to a car or toilet and other things she would need for her usual daily life.
Wheelchair basketball started soon after.
“Wheelchair basketball was so therapeutic for me mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically,” she said. “It really changed my life and how I view myself with a disability.”
Rehab was easier, too, because of her background in sports.
“My biggest goal was to be independent. I didn’t want anybody to push me. I didn’t want anybody to help me get dressed. I didn’t want anybody to help me in the car,” she said. “Those skills of being an athlete really translated well for that. I think athletes work best when they have a goal and there’s an end that you can work toward. That was my gold medal at the time.”
She represented her country in the Paralympic Games three times as a member of the U.S. Paralympics women's wheelchair basketball team, winning gold medals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. She was team captain in 2008.
“(Winning a gold medal) is the most incredible experience you could have as an athlete,” Cisneros Prevo said. “When you put so much time in and make so many sacrifices for one goal and then you accomplish this goal with your best friends, it’s just an amazing experience. You finally see the fruits of your labor.”
Paralympic athletes train just as hard as Olympic athletes, Cisneros Prevo said, only without the financial support or recognition from sports media.
“In 2004, it was serious. We were tired of losing to Canada and we were focused. All that kind of pomp and circumstance was in the background,” she said. “We were much closer as a unit because we were very hungry for a gold medal.”
Cisneros Prevo also played in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. She’s also got a pair of silver medals from the Pan American Games in 1999 and world championships in 2002, in addition to numerous other national and international competition titles.
She played professionally in Germany for a year and coached the University of Illinois team to a national championship in 2007. And Cisneros Prevo was nominated for an ESPY in 2008 for best female athlete with a disability.
“I think, because of sport, it’s kind of a cheesy cliche but it kind of saved my life after my accident,” she said. “Sport provides so many life skills. You learn teamwork, unity, perseverance, determination, all those things. So, when I first got injured and they introduced me to wheelchair basketball, it kind of changed my perception of what my disability was going to be. I could still do all the things that I wanted to do, just a little more creatively.
“Being an athlete has definitely defined who I am, most importantly during that critical time.”
Cisneros Prevo remembers now retired physical education teacher Cynthia Evans was a big influence. Evans would come to her home to pick her up for practices and coached basketball and track.
She recently had a chance to thank Evans for instilling in her a competitive spirit.
“Patty is an inspiration to all of us here at RF and Evans (Elementary) and continues to be a leader and an outstanding citizen,” Ingots Athletic Director Andrew Wielgus said.
She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Valparaiso, where she transferred after the accident. She also holds a master’s from the University of Illinois.
Cisneros Prevo is now a married full-time mom of two kids in the Denver suburbs. She volunteers at Craig Hospital spinal cord rehabilitation center.
She spent a few years as a teacher in the Denver public school system and is building a new career as a children’s author. She recently submitted her first manuscript to publishers.
“I’m writing picture books for kids, mostly about disabilities and trying to change the narrative of how people see people with disabilities,” she said. “A lot of my book ideas have to do with empowering people with physical disabilities, getting kids at a younger age to see that people with disabilities can be just like everybody else.”