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U.S. Basketball Star Trevon Jenifer talks 2024 Paralympic dreams and Secret Service duty

Jenifer discusses the growth of the Paralympics
Team USA's Trevon Jenifer discusses his desired legacy, the importance of mental training, and the growth of the Paralympic movement.

The 2024 Paralympic Games are officially one year away. Ahead of Paris 2024, U.S. basketball star Trevon Jenifer, a three-time Paralympic medalist, reflects on his Paralympic journey, the pride he has in serving his country as both a Secret Service employee and Team USA athlete, and his passion for representation in the workplace for the disabled community.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back at your journey, when you first tried out for the U.S. national team, you didn’t make it. Now you’re a three-time Paralympic medalist. We’re now one year away from the 2024 Paralympic Games, which will hopefully be your fifth Paralympics. What would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. at a fifth Games mean to you?

Trevon Jenifer: I’m so excited! The jitters are starting to grow, especially being [at one year out celebrations] today and talking to all of the media. It just gets you amped up to be able to play. We’re still 365 days out but I’m getting those jitters just to be able to compete again.

If you could go back in time and give younger Trevon – the one who didn’t make the team—advice, what would it be and why?

Jenifer: It would just be to be confident. I think that was one of the things I was lacking [at that time]. It’s a lot of self preservation, making sure that I’m building up myself, and so having that confidence at that younger stage. It took that [experience] for me to understand who I am and to have that self confidence that I have today.

Looking ahead, you’ve tasted back-to-back Paralympic gold medals. What does that feel like and how does that motivate you for Paris?

Jenifer: It’s motivating because we constantly have that target on our back, understanding that every team that we play, every game that we get, we get people’s A-game. If we backslide in our play, then that gives the team an opportunity to be able to capture what we’re ultimately going after—winning gold. I think that keeps us our toes. We understand the target on our back and that pursuit to get there.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 12

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 05: Gold medalist Trevon Jenifer #16 of Team United States celebrates after the men’s Wheelchair Basketball medal ceremony on day 12 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Ariake Arena on September 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

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2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 12

TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMBER 05: Gold medalists Jorge Sanchez #1, Jacob Williams #2, Joshua Turek #4, Michael Paye #5, Matt Lesperance #6, Ryan Neiswender #7, Brian Bell #8, Matt Scott #9, Steve Serio #11, Nate Hinze #15, Trevon Jenifer #16 and John Boie #33 of Team United States pose during the men’s Wheelchair Basketball medal ceremony on day 12 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Ariake Arena on September 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

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What have you learned since the Tokyo Games and how are you different since then?

Jenifer: I’ve learned to be mentally resilient. In that lead up to COVID and with that 2021 Paralympic push-back, it was a big whirlwind. For me personally, I was training for three years preparing for Tokyo and then I don’t know if you remember, but they were actually talking about canceling the Games. I went from being able to feel like you’re at your peak, getting ready to compete in six months time, and then all of a sudden, it was like [the Paralympics] might not even end up happening.

I was able to start reflecting and focusing on being present, on what I’m doing and what I have today, and not allowing tomorrow to dictate my state of mind and my emotions. It’s allowed me to be able to tap into that side of my personality and mental training.

You are a dad as well. Your kids get to grow up and see you as this incredible athlete, having an influence both on and off the court. I’m sure when they get older, they’ll be able to really understand the full magnitude of that. But what does that mean to you?

Jenifer: Well, I’m just dad to them. My daughter’s friends that are about six, seven, and eight, are like “Oh my God, your dad’s a gold medalist.” and she’s just like “Okay, do you want me to go get the gold medal and show you? It’s just my dad.” It’s awesome for them to see that but now they’re getting to the point where they’re playing sports. When my son shoots a basketball, he’s like, “look, I’m you” or “I’m Steve [Serio].”

It’s just so awesome to be able to see them grow and see this aspect and now that they’re getting into sports, I go from being an elite athlete to being a spectator, a fan of someone else’s sport as well that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a fun experience.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?

Jenifer: The legacy I want to leave behind is just understanding that the path that we have isn’t set in stone from the beginning. For me, I was born with no legs, one of five to my mother. I’m the only one in my immediate family to have a disability and it’s not like the script is already written for us. We didn’t grow up in the best neighborhoods. But you are the creator of your life, you’re the creator of what happens, you can dictate. Of course there are opportunities and things that are needed. But you need to understand that when the opportunity does present itself, you have to be physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally ready to capture and take over that opportunity and kill it at the end of the day.

I love that! Earlier on you talked about the importance of being present. What kind of work do you need to put in to make sure that you are present and mentally and physically capable to take advantage of those opportunities when they come?

Jenifer: It’s a constant practice. The awesome thing about mental training is that it’s like physical training. You have to do it a lot of times. Meditation is huge but also being able to catch yourself in those times, reset back, and be grateful for what you have. My kids, my family is huge for me. Whenever I get into those moments, I know the reason I do everything is because of my family. I ask myself what would my daughter say right now? and it easily brings me back... things are so much smaller than what we make them out to be.

Switching gears - what makes the Paralympic movement so powerful?

Jenifer: To see the growth. I got my start in 2009 and then went to my first Paralympic Games in 2012. To be able to see where we were in 2012 and where we are going to be in 2024 is captivating. When people wanted to watch [the Paralympics] they didn’t know where to find it in 2012. They’d have to search the internet to find a link to get there. Now we’re being broadcast on TV, live...that’s become the norm and it’s awesome to see because now people are able to tune in just like they are with the Olympics.

When you talk about the growth, do you think that Paralympic athletes are represented well? Do you think the Paralympics are inclusive enough?

Jenifer: I think it’s an ever growing thing. It’s not something that I think is going to be like “oh, we’ve accomplished it, and now we’re good.” Because I think that happens all too often. We set a set a marker or a goal to meet and once we meet that goal, we’re done. Well, once we meet this goal, it’s time to readjust.

The awesome thing is the coverage has picked up, sponsorships for athletes [have improved]. We have the ability to get out and get our message out there. Now people are not only seeing the individual with a disability, but now they’re seeing like the backstory. We’re not only people with disabilities, we’re not only Paralympians. We’re parents. We’re full-time employees. There is so much more to people than what we see right then and there.

What changes would you like to see more of in the future?

Jenifer: I want the awareness to continue to grow. I think that once we are able to have people understand the sport, everyone knows about able-bodied basketball but the chances of them knowing about wheelchair basketball are still slim.

Obviously, you’re so much more than your disability but do you feel like people with disabilities are represented well? Do you feel seen and heard? If not, what should be done differently?

Jenifer: I think that this is a society thing. In the U.S., we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, that gives the access to community things, things that like we take for granted throughout the community. That’s just in the U.S. that’s not a thing for the entire world right.

Here in the U.S., the disabled community is the largest minority demographic, but we also represent the largest unemployment rates in the United States. When you start to look at these numbers, you start to understand that the representation, obviously, is there because we’re the largest demographic, but to also say that we make up the largest number of individuals that are unemployed, kind of shows that we’re not represented in the workforce. It makes you think, what else aren’t we represented in? I think that’s why we take these opportunities to showcase what we’re able to do. It’s time to take off these beer goggles that we have on when it comes to individuals with disabilities.

Speaking of employment, I know you work the for the Secret Service as a Personnel Security Specialist in the Office of Human Resources. How much pride do you have in getting to not only be a part of Team USA but to also serve your country?

Jenifer: It’s phenomenal. It’s a dream agency of mine. When I got the call, it was actually in September 2020, so I was supposed to be in Tokyo at the time if it wasn’t for COVID. The support that DHS and the Secret Service had shown in the lead up to Tokyo was phenomenal.

It’s not only just being able to represent family, but it’s being able to represent the agency as a whole, and being able to be a representative of employment for individuals with disabilities. It’s something that continues to drive me because I believe that there’s so many more qualified individuals than myself that are currently unemployed, that could be utilized in so many different ways.

What will this next year look like for you ahead of Paris 2024?

Jenifer: It’s going to look crazy! We have the 2023 ParaPan American Games coming up in November in order to punch our ticket to Paris so we’re training in between there. My kids are in 4 different sports so we’re handling that but it’s something that we’re used to at this point. We’re used to juggling a bunch of things and Mama Bear (his partner Laura Klass) back home is phenomenal. She holds down the fort. If not for her, the ship wouldn’t sail as smoothly.

Trevon Jenifer and Laura Klass.JPG

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