Inclusion, skill on display as Easter Seals hosts provincial boccia championships

Boccia may be a game for everyone, but that doesn't mean it takes any less talent to compete — as witnessed at the provincial championships this weekend.

'It's something I can play without the assistance of anyone else,' says competitor

Mike Mercer surveys the situation before a shot in a semifinal game at the boccia provincial championships in St. John's on Sunday. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Mike Mercer's father, Cluney, paced the floor, chewing a fingernail as he whispered encouragement under his breath.

"Come on, Mike," he said before a big shot late in the game. "You can do this, buddy."

Mike was locked in a tense semifinal game at the provincial championships against Hayley Redmond, in their favourite sport — boccia.

Hayley Redmond lost out in the semifinals to her friend and teammate, Mike Mercer. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

In the end, it was Mercer who eked out a 3-2 win in the semifinal for the individual open category.

The two are teammates on a normal day, in one of the few sports that sees men and women compete together.

It is also one of the most inclusive sports, with four separate divisions for various abilities, and the open category where everyone can play together.

"My favourite part of this game, I think, is that it's so inclusive," Redmond said after her match. "And it's something I can play without the assistance of anyone else. Which is great."

How boccia works

The sport is often compared to lawn bowling and curling.

It can be played one on one, or in teams of two and three. One side throws red balls, while the other throws blue. The goal is get your six balls as close as possible to the jack — a white ball thrown at the start of the game.

Eileen Bartlett, referee, measures the distance between balls in deciding who gets the point — Hayley Redmond or Mike Mercer. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

"It's really precise," Redmond said.

And she's right — several times during the semifinal matches on Sunday, referees had to get on their hands and knees and measure the minuscule distance between opposing balls and the jack.

The sport is played at the local level, as well as nationally and internationally.

Mercer has had the chance to compete at all three, and is currently a member of the 16-person national team.

Competitors of all abilities welcome

In the Easter Seals gym, the two semifinals for the open division took place.

In the common area outside the gymnasium, officials taped an outline for a boccia court on the floor and ran matches in other divisions.

These competitors were people who needed the help of a ramp or an assistant to play the game — but that doesn't mean they are any less skilled.

One competitor used his chin to prod the leather balls down a ramp and into play, while his opponent used a device attached to his head.

Their shots were often precise within inches.

Game of skill and thought

To get to the level he is at, Mercer practises between three and four hours daily.

"As much as it is physical, it's also mental," said Eileen Bartlett, director of programs for Easter Seals Newfoundland and Labrador. "So Mike is continuously thinking ahead of the game, a couple shots down the road."

Redmond also spends a lot of time working on her game, especially the mental side.

Mike Mercer tosses a ball during a semifinal match at the provincial boccia championships at Easter Seals N.L. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Before each shot, she goes quiet and narrows her gaze on the target.

"You gotta make it, you gotta get it there," she said. "It's got to go where you want it to go or the game is done."

While she came up short at provincials, Redmond didn't seem to mind.

After the last ball was thrown, she turned to her opponent with a smile.

"Good game, Mike," she said before the two exchanged a fist bump.