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ParalympicsCanada's wheelchair rugby all about team

Posted: Saturday, September 8, 2012 | 05:55 PM

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The Canadian men’s wheelchair rugby team earned a spot in the gold-medal game of the Paralympic tournament after defeating its archrivals from the U.S. (Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
The Canadian men’s wheelchair rugby team earned a spot in the gold-medal game of the Paralympic tournament after defeating its archrivals from the U.S. (Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

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The Canadian men's wheelchair rugby squad earned a spot in the gold-medal game of the Paralympic tournament and did it with a 50-49 nail-biting win over its archrivals - the USA.
My colleague Scott Russell wrote a great piece during the Olympic Games about Canada's relationship with team sports, and I see that team theme running through the Paralympic Games as well.

The Canadian men's wheelchair rugby squad earned a spot in the gold-medal game of the Paralympic tournament and did it with a 50-49 nail-biting win over its archrivals - the USA.

Canada got impressive performances from several individual players like teenager Zac Madell who scored 14 goals, and Trevor Hirschfield and Mike Whitehead, who each contributed 11 goals. But, the team also got a key performance from one of its longest tenured players Garett Hickling. You may remember him as the flag bearer for Canada for the opening ceremony. It wasn't that he piled up the stats but it was the way that he put the team first.

In the first three games of the tournament, Hickling played an average of almost 12 ½ minutes per game. But, in the semifinal, against Team USA he played less than 8 ½ minutes. When he was called upon in the first half he scored two key goals - the second on a clever steal to give Canada a 16-8 lead, which seemed to instill a genuine fear in the opposition.

And then, with the game on the line in the final minute Hickling got a hold of the ball and instead of scoring with about 12 seconds remaining he maneuvered into position and waited, and waited, and eventually inched the ball across the line with only .5 of a second remaining and there was no time left for the Americans to respond.

Every second counts

Hickling's instincts, honed by years of experience, were all about the team. No doubt he wanted to be on the floor more but he made sure that when his opportunity arose he made every half second count. And as a result, he scored seven times in eight minutes, and as a further result, Canada goes for gold on Sunday against Australia.

Sports like swimming and athletics seem to be for individual pursuit. But, virtually every time I spoke with a swimmer in the last fortnight I was struck with the number of times they talked about their teammates. And, the swim TEAM was the most prolific medal getter on the Canadian side.

Track and field can be different in that many athletes seem a little more individualistic. I think I speak with at least some degree of authority in that I represented Canada for a decade internationally. But I also remember that some of my highlight moments came as part of a relay team where you are "in it" for each other.

Jason Dunkerley and Josh Karanja represent teamwork at its finest from the athletics realm. The blind athlete and sighted guide partners ran stride for stride to a silver medal performance in the 5000 metres to compliment the bronze they had reaped in the 1,500 metres. When I asked Josh if it was difficult to adjust his strides to Jason's he said no because "I think that Jason adjusted his stride to mine."

Sprinter a revelation

Sprinter Virginia McLachlan, 19, has been a revelation in London with her bronze medals in the 100/200-metre sprints in the T35 class. When I asked her if she had any family in London she said that her mom was watching back home in Windsor. But then she immediately chimed in that her teammates are pretty much her family anyway.

Canada golden in wheelchair basketball

Richard Peter from the sport of wheelchair basketball knows a little about teamwork. He has been on teams that have won four Paralympic medals, including gold on Saturday night after defeating Australia 64-58 in the final. The Canadian men did not come to London with a lot of fanfare but strung together eight straight wins.

"We've come together as a team, we're not just one guy with the rest of us around him," explain Peter.

His statement hints at what some people think is the secret to Team Canada - give the ball to Patrick Anderson and he will do the rest. Anderson finished as the tournament's leading scorer. In the final against Australia he piled up 34 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

But if anyone knows the truth, it is Patrick Anderson. In a very thoughtful interview he shared this little bit of wisdom.

"It's a paradoxical thing in a sense that when I put up a lot of numbers we seem to have to scratch and claw a little bit more. But, when my numbers are down, and others are up, we seem like a far more dangerous team."

He talked about how the last few games - when he was being tightly guarded - that Winnipeg's Joey Johnson had been the "best player in the world." He gives credit to the leadership of Canada's captains Bo Hedges and David Eng and he gives credit to the youth of the team who have brought the hunger back.

He's a Canadian and understands that it's all about the team.

It's just another reason why London is the best place in the world to be right now.

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