By Kara Wahlgren
No one embodies the mantra "no excuses" quite like Jorge Sanchez.
At eight years old, he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in his left femur. After he endured a year of chemotherapy, doctors amputated his leg above the knee to help reduce the risk of his cancer returning.
The road to recovery wasn't easy. Complications from the amputation left him in a coma for three months, and his doctors weren't sure he would survive. But after six more months of chemo — and more than 20 surgeries — he defied the odds and was finally declared cancer-free.
As Jorge adjusted to life with a disability, a chance encounter while shopping with his mom at Costco changed his life.
"A man approached us asking if I was interested in playing wheelchair basketball," he says. "I was in shock. I had no idea adaptive sports existed. I remember showing up to my first practice and being starstruck by how fast these athletes were moving up and down the court."
Jorge fell in love with the sport — and eventually joined the ranks of the best wheelchair basketball players in the U.S.
He earned a full scholarship to play at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he earned his masters degree and was a three-time first team All-American. He made his first national team in 2013 and won the NWBA National Championship with the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks the following year.
And this summer, he helped the US team bring home a gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
"I want my family, friends, sponsors, and younger generations to see me as someone who changed the perception of people with disabilities," Jorge says. "I won't stop until I'm the best wheelchair basketball player in the world."
We talked with Jorge about how he stays on top of his game — and how he hopes to inspire the next generation of athletes.
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How did wheelchair basketball help with your recovery process and with finding your potential as an athlete?
This sport has given me everything. Finding wheelchair basketball helped my recovery process and my mental health tremendously. I became independent thanks to basketball.
Wheelchair basketball introduced me to people of all different backgrounds and disabilities. This sport made me realize I am blessed and lucky to only be missing a leg. I have it good being an amputee.
When did you realize you could play at an elite level?
The moment I realized I could become an elite athlete in my sport was when I received first-team All-America honors and was voted captain of the U23 USA wheelchair basketball team in 2013-2014.
I competed against the best athletes in the world and played very well, helping my self-confidence and allowing me to unleash a new and improved version of myself.
Who inspired you the most along the way?
I would not be in the position I am in without my family, friends, and supporters.
My parents are the reason I am the man I am today — they showed me that with dedication and hard work, anything is attainable. They sacrificed a lot while I was going through cancer, and I could never repay what they have done for me.
My fiancée, Cristal, helped me a lot by changing my training program and waking up every day to rebound for me without me having to ask. When you have people who believe in you and show you unconditional love, it gives you motivation beyond measure.
You've played professionally in Italy and Spain. How did that opportunity come about?
I was discovered by teams in Europe after winning the NWBA National Championship with the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks in 2014. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to play overseas and train at a higher level. The US does not have a professional league where athletes can make a living playing the sport they love, but Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Turkey all have professional leagues.
My favorite part of living overseas was being able to learn different languages and adapting to all the amazing cultures. The food is amazing as well, and I made friendships that will last a lifetime.
When did you set your sights on the Paralympic Games?
Ever since making my first national team, I became hungry and poised to be a part of Team USA's Paralympic basketball team and help win a gold medal at the Paralympics.
When the Games were postponed in 2020, did that throw a wrench in your motivation?
Hearing about the 2020 Paralympics being postponed and possibly canceled, I immediately panicked. I felt as if all the hard work and sacrifice I had made to be a part of the Paralympics had gone down the drain.
But we disabled athletes are used to difficult and challenging circumstances and persevering through tough times. My experience with cancer taught me a lot of patience and to live in the moment — and that's exactly what I did.
I used the extra year of training to become better on and off the court. Training at home was difficult, but my wife and I made no excuses and pushed each other to be better every day.
Tell us about your experience making the Paralympic team and competing in Tokyo.
Hearing my name being called to represent Team USA at the Paralympics was a dream come true and a moment I will never forget. I had been working extremely hard to make this dream of mine a reality. Being able to play the sport I love with my brothers, representing the USA at the pinnacle of our sport, was incredible.
One of my favorite moments during the Games was getting to know athletes from other countries and hearing their stories. The Paralympics showcases thousands of amazing athletes, and it is beautiful to see them all unite and try to achieve their dreams. Japan did a fantastic job of hosting the games — the people were super-supportive and helpful. I can't thank them enough. My proudest moment was winning gold with my squad!
Now that you've earned a gold medal, what's next?
I will continue to play professionally in Europe. My fiancée and I are planning our wedding, and I'm beyond thrilled, since COVID-19 had postponed our plans.
I plan on continuing to play for Team USA and helping to win another gold at the 2022 World Championships in Dubai. Long-term, I hope I can continue to represent Team USA through the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.
I will continue to motivate younger generations, as well as educate people about the Paralympic movement and people with disabilities. The world still has a lot of work to do to be a fully inclusive society and to have everyone be equal. I am working on starting my nonprofit organization that will aim to provide sports equipment and scholarships to the younger generation of disabled athletes.
How has LADDER helped your performance?
LADDER has helped me on and off the court tremendously. They provide the best and safest supplements in the world.
Pre-Workout gets me ready for all my training sessions and games without the jitters. LADDER Plant Protein allows for excellent post-workout nutrition and recovery — I love mixing the Greens and protein together in my shakes. And I use Hydration on heavy training days or when I'm traveling.
Having an amazing company like LADDER support and believe in me is priceless. They are pioneers in the industry by sponsoring a Paralympic athlete like myself and looking to help promote inclusivity and the Paralympic movement.
Do you have any daily rituals you swear by?
Have a nutritious, big breakfast. I absolutely love breakfast — best meal of the day. After breakfast, I like to take a stroll to grab a coffee or just grab some fresh air.
After that, I take a nap, wake up for lunch, and shower to get ready for the game. Some songs I love to hear before game time are Apparently by J. Cole, Hall of Fame by The Script, and anything Drake.
What advice would you give someone who's looking to take their game to the next level?
Believe in yourself and be relentless in the pursuit of your dreams. You need to be self-motivated, but more importantly you need to believe in yourself, even if you don't feel like others do.
There are no limits in this world — only the ones we set ourselves. The only disability in life is a negative attitude.
Be consistent with your craft. Becoming great takes a lot of determination, discipline, and sacrifice.
What's your ideal way to spend a day off?
My ideal day off starts with a morning cup of coffee, followed by brunch with my loved ones. From there, some time at the beach to relax the mind and body, and some sort of recovery like yoga or getting a massage. Dinner must include tacos or pizza.
We're celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month — how has your own heritage influenced you throughout your life?
I am extremely proud of my Latino heritage and where I come from. As a Mexican American, I feel as if I have the best of both worlds. The Mexican culture has taught me the importance of family values, hard work, and how to have a good time. Anytime Latino music comes on, I feel as if I have to get up and dance!