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As Australia’s men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams fly into Bangkok this week, it’s a trip to Paris that’s really front of mind. 

Eleven men’s teams and nine women’s teams will compete at the IWBF Asia Oceania (AOZ) Championships with first prize a ticket to the 2024 Paralympics.

The Just Better Care Roller Hawks will be represented in the Rollers team by Tristan Knowles, Shawn Russell, Luke Pople and assistant coach Brett Stibners, while Hannah Dodd leads the Gliders women’s team.

The postponement of the 2022 World Championships to 2023 pushed back this tournament which serves as a qualifier that would normally run in November prior to a Paralympic year. 

Instead they’re being held from the 12th January through until the 20th, meaning all athletes have had to maintain intensive training right through the Christmas/New Year period.

AUS Tristan Knowles 2024

“Obviously when you get to this level a lot of the work you have to do is done alone by yourself but what's made it really enjoyable and rewarding is having to get to do it with two good mates in Huss and Luke and I think it says a hell of a lot about the Roller Hawks club and what the club has been able to do in the Illawarra,” says Knowles.  

The trio of Knowles, Russell and Pople have trained together daily with early morning fitness and shooting sessions while the rest of the Roller Hawks squad have continued their weekly training sessions through the off-season to help the side’s Aussie stars be at their optimum.

“To get game-like scenarios and practice different things, different combinations especially with me, T and Huss, although we might not play the same combinations with the Aussie team just being able to get up and down the floor in five on five is really important,” says Pople who is hoping to qualify for his first Paralympics.

AUS Luke Pople 2024

“It’s what you train for every day and get up to do. I haven't ticked one off yet but to make one will be pretty special and to be able to go with Shawn, Tristan and Sticky as a coach would be really awesome.”

The side is looking to bounce back from their seventh placed finish at last year’s World Championships in Dubai.

“I think we really want to prove ourselves that we are actually a top tier team and that result at the Worlds was a one off,” says Russell.

“People can evaluate what we’ve done and what happened and how we go forward but obviously we’ve had a change of coach in Brad Ness and Brett Stibners as assistant so I think we’ve got a whole new game plan so it will be interesting how all that unfolds.”

AUS Shawn Russell 2024

Along with a new coaching staff is new leadership. Knowles, a five-time Paralympian, has been named captain, as voted by his teammates.

He says although Australia has never lost this tournament, past results count for nothing.

Iran won bronze in Dubai while Tokyo 2020 silver medalists Japan only missed the Worlds because their team had to withdraw from the qualifiers mid-tournament due to COVID.

First place gets a direct ticket to Paris while second place will earn a spot at the 2024 IWBF Men’s Repechage in Antibes, France in April.

“We’ll be up against it against the Japanese, Iran and Korea being really fierce competition but we haven’t allowed the idea of repechage to enter the equation yet. We're going to Thailand to win the tournament and we'll go from there.”

In the women’s team, Hannah Dodd will captain the Gliders with the aim of making her third Paralympics and second in wheelchair basketball after also representing Australia in Equestrian in 2012.

Dodd is currently playing professionally in Germany alongside partner Steve Elliott and has linked up with the Gliders in Thailand. 

“Steve made sure I worked hard over the Christmas break to make sure my fitness was up to scratch,” says Dodd.

AUS Hannah Dodd 2024

“The (German) league has kept me in shape, it was more about fine tuning everything and making things sharp.”

Along with a change of role moving from a men’s team back to an all women’s team, there’s also the matter of the size of the ball, going from a size 7 ball down to a slightly lighter and smaller size 6.

“You get used to pushing a little more with the follow through with the 7. So my range is a lot better with the 6 but my layup can be problematic.”

The Gliders have their work cut out for them. They, along with China and Japan all finished in the top 8 in Dubai and are all competing for one spot in Paris.  

Second and third place in the women’s competition will earn a place in the 2024 IWBF Women’s Repechage in Osaka, Japan from 17 April.

“A lot of it will be trial and error with line ups and seeing who works well together. A lot of the girls will be stepping up to the senior international level or debuting so it’ll be a big learning curve as a team.”

The tournament tips off on Friday with the Rollers and the Gliders playing their first games on Saturday. All games can be streamed on the IWBF Youtube channel.