ADVANCE, N.C. — Danika Williams trails her teammates up the court during a recent basketball game at Ellis Middle School.
She’s OK with that, though.
Williams was born with a limb deficiency, bilateral congenital tibial deficiency. She didn’t have a tibia in one leg and only half a tibia in the other. So at 15-months-old her parents, Sabrina and Jason Williams, had to make the decision — amputate her legs up to her thighs or save her legs and have her spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
They decided to have her legs amputated. She now wears high-tech prosthetics — and nothing stops her.
Danika races cars at Farmington Dragway and swims.
“You look at her now and it’s amazing what she can do and it’s all so natural to us — nothing has ever slowed her down,” Lisa Williams, Danika’s grandmother, said. “She has such a big heart and it shows on the court.”
She runs up and down the court using every bit of her energy on specially made attachments or caps that she slips over her thighs.
“It’s just how I play, but it’s better than using my prosthetics,” Williams explained.
Her father and grandfather, Rusty Williams, got her hooked on racing pretty early.
“I think I like racing more, but basketball is so much fun because I really like being part of the team and working with my teammates,” Danika said.
When she was in grade school at Shady Grove Elementary she played a lot of basketball but only on the playground. She played with her full-length prosthetics but found it was harder to maneuver. She got the idea to play with the caps last year and it’s worked better.
The specially-made attachments keep her close to the ground, but also allow her to keep up with the speed of the game. She rotates nicely on the court in Coach Marnic Lewis’ offense and knows exactly where to be on defense.
“This is my first year here coaching and when I got here the athletic director and assistant athletic director told me, yeah, she doesn’t have any legs but she will give you everything she has and she’s done that,” Lewis said about Danika, who made the team after a week of tryouts. “She has a lot of heart and she might have some limitations, but you never see her get down or frustrated about anything.”
Williams had a few turnovers during her playing time against South Davie, and did have a couple of open shots that she wasn’t afraid to take. She also managed to get two rebounds and added an assist and wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the inside players who were twice her size.
During the fifth quarter — which is sometimes played in middle-school games where no score is kept to allow more players to get playing time — Williams made a shot from about 15 feet away.
“No, I didn’t call bank,” she said after the game about making the shot from the left wing where it banked in off the backboard.
Danika likes to watch basketball on TV when she has time, and her favorite player is Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. “I’ve always liked him and I’m a fan of Golden State,” she said. “They are fun to watch.”
Like any player Danika wishes she could get more playing time but doesn’t complain. Playing on her first organized team she’s learned all about sacrifices for the good of the team.
“I believe she does inspire people,” Lewis said. “She brings a lot of dedication to this team and is here every day ready to play. She knows she doesn’t get a lot of playing time but is ready to go in whenever I call on her.”
There’s always an adjustment for children who get to middle school for the first time from grade school, but Lisa says her granddaughter has handled everything so well.
“She’s doing well in school and I don’t ask for straight A’s but she’s close and she knows school comes first before basketball or racing,” Lisa said. “There are some things she’s had to deal with because when she wears her prosthetics they are kind of stiff and she can get self-conscious, but other than that it’s been smooth.”
Danika also finds time to swim and says that’s helped her build up her arm strength.
When she drives at Farmington Dragway she doesn’t use her full-length prosthetics because her grandfather modified the car so she controls the gas and the brakes from the steering wheel.
As a bonus, she will have a new car at Farmington this spring and is looking forward to racing this season.
“We are getting ready for racing season,” said Rusty, who is owner of North Point Auto Sales in Winston-Salem. “She started racing about two years ago and loves getting out on the track.”
At Farmington Dragway there’s a children’s division where kids as young as 6-years-old can drag race.
Danika said her favorite NASCAR driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr., and when it comes to her favorite drag racers she’s partial to Ashley Force.
Rusty said his granddaughter has improved tremendously behind the wheel.
“They have something every year called the Junior Dragster Shootout and she was runner-up last year,” Rusty said.
Rusty said it has been a quick 10 years since Danika underwent the complicated surgery but he can remember how difficult it was.
“Her attitude and just wanting to do anything she sets her mind to is something I can’t describe,” Rusty said. “There is nothing she can’t do so we’ve never tried to hold her back from doing anything.”
The condition Danika was born with is a genetic one. Her mother Sabrina was born with the same condition.
“Her mom had one prosthetic,” Lisa said. “She was born with the same thing but she only had the one leg.”
However, it didn’t affect Danika’s sisters, 4-year-old Casey and 15-month-old Sierra.
Sabrina Williams died last year but her death was unrelated to the limb deficiency.
Lisa said what amazes her is how Danika has been so good at deflecting awkward situations.
There are times where Danika goes to the grocery store with her grandmother without her full-length prosthetics. And those who don’t know her sometimes stare and young children might say something.
“She just looks at them and says ‘hi’ and she does that if anybody is staring at her,” Lisa said. “She just has a good disposition about everything.”
Lisa says it’s hard to think back 10 years ago when Danika underwent the surgery and how much stress that was on the family.
“I can think back when she was 15-months-old and Jason and Sabrina and myself and Rusty took her to Shriner’s Hospital (in Greenville, S.C.) for the operation and it was very hard,” Lisa said. “But we all worked through that part of it and to see Danika now is amazing.”
Teammates, friends and teachers at Ellis Middle School hardly notice Danika’s disability anymore. Two wrestlers who had practice while the basketball game was going on stopped by to see the game.
One of the wrestlers, Ethan Lunsford, said Danika could probably be a good wrestler if she wanted to.
“I don’t think there is anything she can’t do,” Lunsford said. “It’s pretty cool to see her out there playing basketball and doing her thing.”
Teammate Krystal Davis says Danika has improved tremendously playing in her first year of organized basketball.
“You see her out there hustling every day and, really, we don’t even notice that she doesn’t have any legs,” Davis said. “She’s just Danika.”
Lisa says because Danika doesn’t make a big deal out of not having legs, the rest of the family doesn’t either.
“I hear it a lot that she’s an inspiration,” Lisa said. “And she likes to talk to everybody. We’ve come across military veterans who have lost limbs and they’ll tell her she’s doing great and that brings a smile to her face.”
After the game, in which South Davie won easily, Danika answered questions in the nearby cafeteria. The loss didn’t linger for the upbeat Danika, who was already looking forward to the next game.
As she headed out to the gym Danika grabbed her full-length prosthetics and was headed to the locker room to attach them. It’s a routine she is used to by now. As she made her way to the locker room she had one question for a teammate: “Hey, where are you going to eat dinner tonight?”