All Canadian athletes will tell you that they’re proud to compete for their country, sport the Maple Leaf, wear the colours of the red and white and, of course, hear the national anthem at competitions.
But Nik Goncin is a tad more appreciative of his situation. Never mind the amputee feels fortunate to have found the sport of wheelchair basketball to excel, he feels fortunate simply to be a Canadian.
“I think it means more to me than most just because of my history and how I lost my leg and the stuff I went through,” he said. “I wouldn’t be on the planet if it wasn’t for the health care system we have here in Canada.
“I was sponsored, we were refugees of war, I gotta thank Canada for that, so I mean, I love being Canadian. Putting that Canadian jersey on is just the biggest honour ever.”
The 23-year-old Goncin was born in Sarajevo. His family left the war-ravaged country formerly known as Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina) in 1994 before Goncin’s third birthday.
They settled in Regina and have lived happily there despite the fact that Nik lost his leg below his left knee when he was in Grade 11 to Osteosarcoma, a common form of bone cancer.
He was a decent able-bodied athlete and sort of fell for wheelchair basketball by accident. When Goncin was a student at Riffin High, there was a demonstration of the sport at his school. He was hooked and it was good fortune when Mike Brady, the coach of the local Regina Paratroopers Wheelchair Basketball Club found a spot for Goncin.
Several years later, Goncin is a star on the Canadian scene and will lead the national team at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto.
How good is Goncin? Well, when he led Canada at the 2013 world junior and was named tournament MVP, his coach Steve Bialowas compared him to Canadian legend Patrick Anderson.
Anderson, now 35, grew up in Fergus, Ont. When he was nine, he was hit by a drunk driver and lost both of his legs below the knees. But he persevered, and like Goncin, found a haven in wheelchair basketball and became one of the sport’s all-time best.
Anderson has won Olympic gold in 2000, 2004 and 2012 and settled for silver in 2008.
Goncin doesn’t seem to mind being compared to a legend.
“The first thing I feel is, that’s not who I am, you know what I mean?” Goncin said. “It’s kind of like Kobe [Bryant] comparing himself to Michael [Jordan]. I’m not saying I’m Kobe by any means, but he’s never going to be Michael Jordan and I’m never going to be Patrick Anderson.
“I understand what [Bialowas] means. He means I’m going to be a very good player. I’m appreciative absolutely but when someone says he’s going to be the next Pat Anderson, no, I want to be Nik Goncin.
“It’s an honour to even be in the same talk as Pat is but I’m never going to be seven-feet tall so I’m going to have to play different than he does so I don’t think I’ll necessarily play like him. Hopefully, I would love to have the same success as he does.”
Everywhere he's gone, he's won
Like Anderson, Goncin is classified as a 4.5-point wheelchair basketball player. These types of players have been deemed as having the least disability on the court. They usually have minimal lower limb dysfunction and have normal trunk movements in all directions.
A team can only have five players on the court that add up to no more than 14 points. Therefore, if you’re a 4.5 you better be all world.
Goncin has been. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s won.
“I’ve got to play the speed game, the passing and the shooting game because I’m not going to be the tallest player on the court,” he said.
“But If I can beat you from one side of the court to the other side of the court that’s how I’m going to gain my advantage and then out-thinking you. So I’d like to keep going on my strengths because I can’t change how tall I am.”
Goncin is part of the CIBC Team Next. His mentor is Canadian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy. The relationship has benefitted Goncin.
“There’s a lot of things in common, like mental stuff, nutritional stuff,” Goncin said. “Training motivation, it’s not necessarily our training is going to be different, but the way we pump ourselves up or get our teammates pumped, might be the same.
“How we deal with frustrations, and the mental capacity on the court or on the track for him. He gets tired just like I get tired. What goes through his head? How does he obviously beat his tiredness? He doesn’t let his body quit him, so things like that, that helps like a ton.”
Goncin is well aware of the pressure he and his teammates will face in Toronto. Canada not only is the defending Olympic gold-medal team, but Goncin knows a strong performance will bring awareness to the sport and give him bragging rights when he returns to school at the University of Illinois.
He graduated in May with a Human Kinetics degree and plans on a career in dentistry. But when he returns to school in the fall he doesn’t want to have to hear any smack from his Illinois teammates, who along with Goncin, finished second in the NCAA championship this past season.
“Well, obviously we’re Team Canada so we want to win for the country, that’s the aim, right?” Goncin said. “To represent the country is an honour.
“But I go to school in the States, I hear smack talk wherever I go, whatever country I visit. It’s like, oh, it’s Canada. Because we just won that gold medal. So, that kind of established, we’re gonna smack talk Canada until the next Paralympics. So, I mean, I would love to just put it in people’s face if we can pull this off, which I really, really, truly hope we do and I think we can.”
Wheelchair basketball has come a long way in Canada because of its success internationally. In October 2013, a national academy run by Mike Frogley was instituted at the University of Toronto on its Scarborough campus. The Parapan Am Games is another opportunity to further showcase the sport to wheelchair athletes.
“The academy is the first of its kind in the world,” Goncin said.
“There’s no wheelchair basketball academy even close to what this is and it’s still in the early going. There’s so many wonderful things that are happening right now so I can only imagine what kind of wonderful things are about to come.
“But let’s stay on top. We’ve won three golds in the last four Paralympics. That’s not been done before and we want to continue that.
“I think it’s going to showcase at the Parapans, too. People will know what we’ve been doing every single morning for the last year, two years now, so, it’s going to be wonderful.”