COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa. (KMTV) — For most of the last year, Josh Turek has been tearing up the nets at the YMCA in Council Bluffs.
“I’ve only seen him miss once until today,” Council Bluffs YMCA Pickleball Instructor Lu Gunzenhauser said.
Preparing for something much bigger than a pickup game at the gym
“This is a full professional sport with full on athletes who have dedicated their entire lives to this,” Turek said. “It’s unbelievably physical, and quick, and athletic.”
Turek first got into wheelchair basketball when he was 12 years old. It did not take him long before he started turning heads.
“I was getting a lot of college looks and scholarship opportunities. I ended up going to Southwest Minnesota State University,” Turek said. “I scored over 4,000 points in my college career, 63 points in a game.”
The path didn’t end there. Turek then went on to play professionally overseas.
“I actually wasn’t even totally aware that professional wheelchair basketball existed over in Italy. I took the opportunity – played a few years in Milan, played in Spain, played in France.”
While that was all gravy on a spectacular career, none of it was the reason he started playing.
“It was always to wear USA across my chest and try to win a gold medal for the US,” Turek said. “From day one that was what I was looking to do.”
Turek accomplished that goal, making the Paralympic team in 2004. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the sharpshooter after that. He had to battle to get back on the team after that year.
“They were only taking 12 guys from the entire country, so for six straight years I tried out and was cut year, after year, after year,” Turek said. “I just thought, I’m going to keep coming back, I’m not going to stop, I’m going to keep working and get so good that eventually they can’t cut me.
He’s been a staple on the team ever since, helping the team win a bronze medal in the 2012 Paralympics. In those games, he led the team in points and rebounds.
In 2016 the team was even better. The team won the gold medal game over Spain by 18, the closest game they had in the entire Paralympic Games. Resulting in the first gold for the US since 1988.
“The Paralympics and the Olympics supersede sports because it’s bigger than just the sporting event itself. It’s for your country, it’s to represent your city and your family,” Turek said. “So, without question that is the greatest achievement of my life.”
A feeling he says, that goes unmatched.
“You’re almost at a lack for words because it’s almost emotionally overwhelming for you. You don’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or what to do,” Turek said. “You’re just filled with a feeling of happiness and complete satisfaction for what you dedicated your life to.”
Turek was set to hang it up, before being talked back into one final mission - a trip to Tokyo for his fourth, and final, Paralympic Games.
“I was still playing over in Europe; I was still playing in Spain which is probably the best league in the world. I was still top scorer of the league, I was all-star five, I was playing really, really well,” Turek said. “So, they asked me to come back and try to do this one more timer, to repeat.
The 42-year-old is the oldest on the team and was ready for the next chapter of his life. The pandemic made the preparation for this final ride even tougher.
“This has been a five-year journey, not a four-year journey. With COVID I wasn’t over in Europe, I wasn’t able to play – I've been training on my own for the past 15 months. It has really been mentally and physically grueling,” Turek said. “Especially because father time is undefeated, this doesn’t get easier as you get older.”
Working out in the city gym isn’t a professional athlete’s ideal way of training, but the city has been happy to have him.
“He does make it look easy. If you got the will, you got the way, and I think he has always followed that,” Gunzenhauser said. “I’m very proud to know him.”
And he’s even more proud to represent them.
“Many times, Council Bluffs can feel like the small red headed stepchild to Omaha. So for me, I really want to say, ‘No, no, no. I’m from Council Bluffs, Iowa'. This is my city, these are my people, and I want to represent them well,” Turek said. “I want them to be proud of me, and proud of the community. That means a great deal to me.”
The Paralympic Games get started on August 24th. Turek says the USA is in the ‘pool of death,’ with the top four teams in the country all going head-to-head.