Sariah Elam always planned to play basketball at the University of Arizona. Even after an auto accident left her paralyzed waist-down at age 15 and then being diagnosed with stage three brain cancer a year later, the 18-year-old Sahuarita High School graduate stayed determined to move forward with her dream.
“My mindframe did not change,” Elam said. “I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to pass it up for anything. No matter what was put in my life.”
Make-A-Wish Arizona jumpstarted her dream by granting her wish for a custom sports wheelchair on July 1. Riding on an athletics scholarship for high school basketball and a new chair, the future Wildcat is set on joining the UA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team this fall.
“I think of the typical stuff that any Make-A-Wish kid would go on, but what really touched my heart was I really needed a basketball chair,” Elam said. “I knew how it would make me feel and make a difference in my life in order to have this chair for college, for my game and the comfort of having a chair that fits.”
Elam had outgrown her first wheelchair, and wanted to have a chair more suited to play in for the future. Prior to finding out she had cancer, Elam had taken measurements for a sports chair in Chicago while being at an away game, evn through she didn’t think she’d be able to afford it.
“In the other chair, it was very small and uncomfortable to play basketball. It was more pain than fun,” Elam said. “I needed a new chair to play in college, but the price of one and the time it would take—I wouldn’t be able to get it.”
When Make-A-Wish delivered her new chair, she zipped to the courts straight away.
“The second they sent it to me, I jumped into it and started playing some basketball and making a few shots,” Elam said. “Just went around in my chair so excited and thankful for it.”
According to Elam, the major difference between her daytime wheelchair and her new sports chair is the angled wheels that allow her to pick up speed in making those sharp basketball turns. She enjoys how the chair is more lightweight and has straps that safely secures her in the seat.
However, one of the chair’s defining features Elam loves the most is the red and blue colors she chose to represent her college.
“When I got this chair I wasn’t actually accepted to the university yet, but I got the colors because I knew I was going to push myself to make it there,” she said. “The colors of my chair was going to be there to motivate me… [And] I knew that is where I was going to end up at the end of the day.”
Though Elam is now in remission, the days surrounding her cancer diagnosis posed so many unknowns for her family. Was it something she could overcome? Will the tumor come back? Raelene said it became especially draining on Sariah who went in for radiation treatment daily for almost seven weeks.
“My family was super supportive about it. They were able to help me through a lot of my mental stress I was going through, my physical stress, they were there to hold my hand through the hard times,” Elam said. “It was hard in a lot of ways, but it was also a blessing in a lot of ways. I was able to make a lot of connections with my family, extended family and friends I don’t think I was able to make without that situation in my life.”
Raelene said sticking together as a family and keeping optimistic helped them through the hard times. However, it was also nice to have a helping hand.
“It was great to have someone there to support us as well,” Raelene said. “I’m very grateful for Make-A-Wish for their desire to help, I know that it took her a while to decide what she wanted her wish was going to be and throughout the COVID to be able to get accomplished. I’m so grateful to them for staying persistent and pushing it to help her with her dream.”
Elam will be majoring in family studies and human development just like her mother. She hopes to work with kids in the future and make an impact on their lives. College will be her stepping stone, and so is her sports wheelchair.
“With my new chair, I hope to come on and dominate the floor and be able to enjoy the experience with my team,” Elam said. “I’m looking forward to all the experiences I’m going to make because of this chair, because of the university, the team and the people. I’m excited for the memories I get to take with me outside of college.”