"One of the biggest misconceptions about our sport is that people think we play wheelchair rugby on grass."
Canadian team co-captain Ian Chan made it clear that's not the case when we chatted earlier this week about his team and its chances in London.
The sport is played indoors on a wheelchair basketball court, and it does not utilize any of the standard positions of rugby like a "prop" or a "scrum half," etc. The ball is different too. It's essentially a volleyball, and there are only four athletes per team on the field of play instead of 15. The goal is to carry the ball across the opposition's goal line, in between a pair of pylons, but only one point is awarded per score.
But wheelchair rugby does share a trait with traditional rugby in that there is a lot of physical contact. We're not talking accidental or incidental contact, but full-on, chair-on-chair slams. In fact, Chan's fellow co-captain David Willsie says that when his team is doing it right, it bears resemblance to another popular Canadian sport.
"We have to play 'Canada Rugby'... which is exactly like Canada hockey. It's full throttle, it's hammer down, it's finish your checks. We finish our checks better than anybody here, and that's what we do."
Willsie and Chan have been doing this for a long time. This is the fourth Paralympic Games for both players, and each has a silver and a bronze medal to show for his efforts. They represent the pinnacle of a sport that is growing at the club level across Canada. They also represent the quadriplegic community, which is not quite as well represented in other Paralympic sports.
In fact, wheelchair rugby was formally known as quad rugby, but has since grown from allowing only quadriplegics to allowing those with some type of functional disability in all four limbs. Like other Paralympic sports, there is a classification system , which starts at 0.5 (lower level of function) and goes all the way up to 3.5 (higher degree of function) but the total number on the floor cannot exceed 8 points.
Captain Willsie shares a little about Canada's method of manipulating those numbers.
"We are a level team [meaning his team tends to use more middle-number players]. Everybody is good at their position but everybody has to do their job on our team to win."
After a tough loss to Australia to start the tournament, the Canadians rebounded with a win over Belgium and then needed to beat Sweden to get into the medal round. It came down to the wire, but the Canadian side prevailed 53-52 and now awaits its semifinal opponent (possibly the U.S). That game will go Saturday, with the gold and bronze medal games on Sunday.
Wheelchair rugby was invented in Canada, but no Canadian team has ever won Paralympic gold. The odds seem to be stacked against them, but when I asked Willsie before the tournament about which country presented the biggest challenge, he paused before answering "Ourselves."
Canada will be in a medal game this weekend. For me, meeting down-to-earth, supremely dedicated athletes like Ian Chan and David Willsie is another reason why London is the best place in the world to be right now.
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