One of my most enjoyable experiences so far at the London Paralympics was meeting and interviewing the Canadian bronze medal-winning boccia team of Josh Vander Vies and Marco Dispaltro. These men are the best possible ambassadors for their sport - or any sport. They are articulate, bilingual and ooze self awareness.
Boccia is somewhat similar to lawn bowling, but is played indoors instead of outside. The aim of the game is to get your team's balls closer to the white ball (jack ball) than you opponents'. Like Curling, only one team can score per end.
Vander Vies, a Sarnia, Ont., native who I first met when he was 11 years old, is now a 27-year-old studying law at the University of British Columbia. He already holds an honours double degree in political Science and French from the University of Western Ontario. He is an athlete representative for both the International Boccia Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee. And in his spare time he has become one of the top 20 boccia players in the world.
His partner, the 45-year-old Dispaltro, has a rich sporting heritage. The St-Jerome, Que., native comes from a wheelchair rugby background. In fact, he played the game for many years and then acted as the sport's High Performance Director in Canada. Following that he was hired as head coach of the Swedish wheelchair rugby team, which he ran very successfully until 2008. He played boccia for the first time in 2010, and is obviously a natural. But he takes nothing for granted, training religiously in pursuit of perfection.
Dispaltro is ranked higher than Vander Vies (fourth compared to 17th) in individual play, but together they create a formidable team.
Vander Vies gives the short version of Canada's march through the preliminary round: "We played out of our minds for three games," he said. "We started it off with wins over No. 2 [Thailand] and No. 3 [Great Britain] in the world and from there we just had a lot of momentum. We didn't do anything incredible, we just took the focus that we had built when we were training together."
Those three wins pushed Canada into the semifinals against the Czech Republic. Things seemed to be going well with Canada leading 3-0 heading to the fourth and final regulation end. But the Czechs fought back to tie it and send the proceedings to an overtime end before handing Canada its first loss of the tournament.
Dispaltro describes what they learned from that loss:
"Our style is more conservative, sometimes with a splash of brilliance, but yesterday we were just a little bit too timid and at this level you just can't afford to be like that."
In Tuesday's bronze-medal match, that timidity was replaced with confidence - maybe even a little swagger. Here's Vander Vies's assessment of the bronze-medal match against the host nation Great Britain: "I was salivating in the first end when I was seeing how the balls were playing out. We saw that it was going to be a great setup for us and Marco made a brilliant smash to open up the jack and we were able to squeeze four of our balls in there. That just took the wind out of their sails. They had the crowd with them at the beginning but we didn't give them much else to cheer about."
Canada romped to an 8-2 win to get a bronze medal
in the duo's first Paralympic Games together.
I was struck by the inner strength that these two men possess. Some would say that they have severe physical disabilities, but that was not at all what captured my attention. Quite simply, they know who they are and how significant their contribution is to Canadian sport and to Canada. If we recognize ii, great, but no adulation, recognition or any other extrinsic factor will change their approach to success.
"We both fell in love with boccia because it's such a great sport. It's an elegant game," Vander Vies said.
And make no mistake, these are two elegant guys. This is just another reason why London is the best place to be in the world right now.Rob Snoek is a former Canadian Paralympian who is covering the London Games for CBCSports.ca. Follow him on Twitter @RobSnoekLIVE.
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