Saturday, December 13, 2008

Canadian disabled athletes passing the Paralympics torch

From The Globe and Mail in Toronto. The article also has an accompanying video of the athletes.

TORONTO — Before the scrimmage, Shayne Smith gathers the players around him.
This basketball game has two rules, the 20-year-old tells them. Have fun, and communicate with your teammates.

Oh, and nobody say "disabled," he adds, then gestures to a group of adults standing on the sidelines. "We can do anything any of them can do. We just do it differently."
His teenaged players, dressed in track pants and hoodies, all sit in wheelchairs. One boy lies on a hospital bed with wheels.

His statement packs clout, considering Mr. Smith can sink shots from centre court with no legs and only half a hand.

But Mr. Smith, a point guard with Canada's Junior Wheelchair Basketball squad, isn't here at Toronto's Bloorview Kids Rehab just to inspire. He's here to recruit.

Across the country, elite wheelchair athletes such as Mr. Smith are scouting rehabilitation wards, school gyms and malls for quadriplegics and amputees, urging them to give a try to wheelchair and Paralympic sports such as basketball, rugby, sledge hockey and curling.

Their efforts are key to their sports' survival.While Canada's Paralympians continue to dominate on the world stage, until recently this country has lagged in its development of recreational or intermediate-level players. Now, as retirement beckons champions such as wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, who this week was awarded the 2008 Lou Marsh Trophy for Canada's best athlete, national team coaches are looking at the next generation and realizing that the pool is shallow.

"Our national team athletes are receiving the best of the best, probably better than anywhere in the world," said Andy Van Neutegem, high-performance director for the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association. "What we need to do now is to extend those services down to the second level of athletes."

The most recent data from the Canadian Paralympic Committee show only about 3 per cent of people with a physical disability were participating in sports in 2003. Lack of a national data tracking system means that more recent statistics are unavailable, but sports organizations such as Wheelchair Sports Alberta report a slow, but steady rise in memberships in recent years.

One reason is the increased visibility of athletes such as Ms. Petitclerc and films such as Murderball, the Academy Award-nominated 2005 documentary on full-contact wheelchair rugby. Another reason is the proliferation of specialized wheelchairs adapted for sports such as snowboarding and tennis.

But the biggest contributor is the aggressive recruitment of new participants.

"We're always scouting," said Dave Willsie, co-captain of the Canadian men's wheelchair rugby squad. "No matter what level that player reaches, they're a benefit to the system. Even if they just are always a recreational player. What they are is another body at practice that you need."

Mr. Willsie, who lives in London, Ont., broke his neck playing hockey in 1996 and was in a battering-ram-like rugby wheelchair within months. "There was a couple of guys that pretty much grabbed me right out of the rehab hospital."

Athletes are still recruited in a haphazard way. Sometimes, if Mr. Smith catches sight of an athletic-looking person in a wheelchair in the mall, he go over and say: "Here's my contacts. Come out to practice."

There's still a long way to go, Mr. Willsie says: Access to programs is spotty depending on where you live, and specialized sports chairs are prohibitively expensive for many people.

But both he and Mr. Smith see more programs today than there were when they started. Last week, more than a dozen soldiers injured in Afghanistan travelled to a Kingston military base, where they were put through fitness drills and introduced to sports such as sledge hockey. The pilot program, a partnership effort between the military and Canadian Paralympic Committee called Soldier On, aims to keep soldiers fit enough to stay in uniform.

One of the most successful ventures is called Bridging the Gap, a grassroots program that started about nine years ago in B.C. and has expanded across the country over the past year.

"The goal of the program is to get people active," national program co-ordinator Duncan Campbell, a Winnipeg native who's also credited with inventing the sport of wheelchair rugby in the late 1970s. "Because sports chairs are a little bit of freedom."

Back at Bloorview Kids Rehab, Mr. Smith's visit, sponsored by the Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association's Bridging the Gap program, is in full swing.

To begin, Mr. Smith tells his story: how a rare blood disorder robbed him of his limbs as a baby, how he fell in love with basketball at age 8 despite those who warned his mother she was setting him up for disappointment, and how it took him four years to score his first basket. Now, he travels the world representing Canada.

For about an hour, the teenagers zoom up and down the court, blocking passes.

Afterward, when asked what it was like to meet Mr. Smith, Kenny Wittmann beams.

"He was nuts," says the 13-year-old, who has cerebral palsy and can walk with the aid of a walker.

Mr. Smith, seated next to him, laughs. "In a good way?"

"Yeah," Kenny says. "Just the way he could play. He made all of us feel good inside."

Next week, after four months at Bloorview receiving rehabilitation from major surgery on his legs, Kenny will be going home to Georgetown, Ont., to be reunited with his parents, two brothers and a sister.

When he was little, Kenny played goalie on his knees. Now, he plans to stand up on skates. He's also looking for a wheelchair basketball team.

"I do want to get back to this sport when I'm out of here," he says. "Because it's a lot of fun being in speedy chairs. And it brings a challenge, which is exactly what I like."