How many muscles does it take to win a gold medal?
I work every day to ensure the answer is four. I’m a quadriplegic, which means that I have only four working muscles: my biceps, the outer head of one of my deltoids, my pecs and part of my back muscles. Of those, only my biceps are fully functional.
One of the biggest myths about people with quadriplegia is that they can’t move their arms or legs at all. Usually, that’s not the case.
Think of the spinal cord as being like a bundle of wires, where each wire controls a different function. A spinal cord injury can cut all of the wires, some of the wires, or some of the wires part way.
To be eligible to play wheelchair rugby, your disability must impact at least three limbs, but there’s still a huge range of function between athletes.
My teammate Zak Madell, for example, has no hands or legs, but the rest of his muscles are fully operational. Whether you’re a high-function athlete like Zak or a lower-function athlete like me, the key to being great at wheelchair rugby is to make the most of what you have.
Changes are invisible
I train at the Richmond Olympic Oval alongside other elite athletes, most of them able-bodied. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I see how training changes their bodies.
Their shoulders broaden out, their calves bulge, their waists taper. You can see the results of their hard work written all over them.
The changes in our bodies, however, are invisible. When our shirts come off as we get ready for a game, our locker room looks quite a bit different from an able-bodied, high-performance team. There's no calendar shoot in our future, just those "quad bellies," and those toothpicks for legs.
We joke about being a motley crew, that our bodies aren’t right, but when I look around at my teammates I know we wouldn’t change a thing because we’ve worked our asses off for what we have.
I often lift the same weight six days a week for six months before I’m able to move up half a pound. An able-bodied athlete can put on a pound of muscle in a few weeks, but it takes me over a year. Every gram of muscle I build is the result of thousands of hours in the gym, of swinging the battle ropes or pulling a sled or sprinting with elastic bands strapped to my chair, of eating exactly enough protein and refueling with just enough electrolytes, of taping weights to my hands with electrical tape because my fingers can’t grip, of plateauing and fighting through the plateau again and again.
The difference between an able-bodied athlete and me is the difference between watering your lawn with a sprinkler system and watering it with an eye dropper.
Tiny gains pay huge dividends
So, no, I don’t see the changes when I look in the mirror, but I do see them when I wheel out on to the court. Over the course of a season, those tiny gains pay huge dividends. People cheer for wheelchair rugby’s big hits, but really the sport is a matter of millimetres.
I can steal a ball if my opponent leans back just an inch too far. If every athlete on Team Canada beats his or her opponent down the court by just a fraction of a second, we’ll win the game.
And now it’s finally time for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Since our silver medal at the London 2012 Paralympics, I’ve put in four years of blood, sweat and tears, (okay, maybe just blood and tears, since like many quadriplegics, I don’t sweat), for the privilege of playing for gold once again.
There are five games standing between our team and a gold medal now: five chances to prove that we can push a little faster and hit a little harder than teams like the U.S., and Australia.
When I compete, people see how fast I am and how strong I’ve become. I know that when I put the Maple Leaf on my chest and wheel out on to the court in Carioca Arena 1, there will be no doubt about my fitness or my dedication. All those microscopic transformations will be worth it. I’ll be out there helping my team win a gold medal, using all the strength you cannot see.
(Large photos courtesy daleandross.com)