Paralympics highlight co-operation between athletes with and without disabilities

More than 150 athletes will represent Canada in 19 different sports at the Rio Paralympics. Each competitor has their own unique story about how they got to the Games. And sometimes those stories involve an able-bodied person participating at the Paralympics, either in the background, or right out font.

Wheelchair basketball, blind skiing among the parasports bringing athletes together

Steve Sampson (left), who has full use of his legs, enjoys playing the parasport of wheelchair basketball with disabled players like Andrew Seely (right). (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

In the sport of wheelchair basketball, physical contact is the name of the game. The chairs themselves are built to withstand punishing hits, and Steve Sampson loves it.

"It's fun. You're in a go-cart, it's very physical, you're bumping and banging, and it's glorious. So much fun."

And fun is why Sampson adopted the sport — even though he has full use of his legs.

He decided to give the sport a try after seeing a game in person at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008. He returned home, joined a recreational league, and eventually became an assistant coach for Canada's team, which will compete at this year's Paralympics in Rio.

Canada's Patrick Anderson, left, seen here at the 2012 London Paralympics. Canada, which assistant coach Steve Sampson said is a 'powerhouse' in the sport, took the gold medal at those Games, and will compete again in Rio. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Sampson says some people struggle to understand why an able-bodied athlete would choose to play a parasport.

"I have able-bodied friends who questioned why I play," he said.

"I can play at stand up, I'm a decent player at stand up. So they question why I would sit down in chair. I've invited them to come down and play, and it was like, 'No, I'm not sitting in that chair until I have to.' It's almost a fear."

Canada a wheelchair basketball 'powerhouse'

But Sampson says those attitudes are changing. And Canada has lead the way.

"Historically, Canada has been a powerhouse [in wheelchair basketball]," he said.

"We've allowed our able-bodies to play. They play on our teams, they go to nationals. It has brought the level of domestic play up for us."

In Canada, able-bodied athletes are allowed to compete in wheelchair basketball at the national level. But in international competitions, they're barred from playing. 0:47
That's not the case in other countries, like the U.S., for instance — where there's a strong feeling in many leagues that wheelchair basketball should be for athletes with disabilities only.

But Sampson says here in Canada, we can't afford to take that position, because there are often not enough disabled players coming forward to play, especially in smaller communities.

Finding a guide a challenge for blind skiier

But some parasports require an athlete with a disability to work with a non-disabled athlete — blind skiing, for example.

17-year-old Brenda MacDonald is legally blind, and competed at last year's Canada Games. She's hoping to make the Paralympics in 2022.

But without a sighted guide to ski ahead of her and call directions, MacDonald says it can't happen.

She's been through four different people over the past four years. Typically, they're athletes who have recently retired from elite sport themselves.

Blind skiier Brenda MacDonald hopes to compete at the 2022 Paralympics. But she says finding a sighted guide to work with her can be challenge. (Brenda MacDonald/Facebook)
"They were not wanting to race anymore, but they still wanted to be skiing. So they sort of volunteered to do it," she said.

But MacDonald's training schedule is intense — seven days a week at peak season. In effect, she and her guide must become a team, sharing the same goal.

MacDonald is still searching for that perfect pairing — her father, Stephen MacDonald, has stepped in for the time being. 

"We can manage, but there's a lot of additional frictions that can come into that relationship. And if you can reduce the amount of stress before a race, it's always the best thing you can do," he said.

"The struggle of a teenage girl and her dad," Brenda MacDonald added with a laugh.

Sports can change perceptions of disability

Back at the basketball court, Steve Sampson explained his own struggles with getting more able-bodied people involved in parasport.

"There was this one kid, he was 15 years old, he came out to one of my practices. He loved it," he said.

"He got in the chair, he loved it like I do. But his dad, he was a hockey dad. And there was no way his son was going to play in a wheelchair."

That's too bad, Sampson says — because getting involved in sports like wheelchair basketball can change people's perceptions of what it means to live with a disability.

About the Author

Blair Sanderson

Reporter

Blair Sanderson is a nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years.