When I look up into the stands in the Mississauga Sports Centre, my dad won’t be there.
He won’t be wearing red and waving a Canadian flag. He won’t be sitting beside my mom and sister, holding his breath each time I take a hit. He won’t be in the stands at all.
That’s because he’ll be right there on the bench beside me.
My dad, Bobby, is the equipment manager for Canada’s wheelchair rugby team. He’s a one-man pit crew.
When a tire blows, there’s Bobby hustling on to the court to change it so that we don’t have to take a time out or sub the athlete off. When an athlete falls out of his wheelchair, here comes Bobby to pull him up and give him a slap on the back.
I’ve called him Bobby since I was very young because he was my coach in so many sports growing up. Coach Bob. Now, when we’re together on the team, it’s less of a father-son dynamic and more like two really good friends. He’s just one of the guys.
It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be on the team if not for Bob. I was only 16 when I became a quadriplegic, and I didn’t want to play wheelchair sports. Duncan Campbell, the inventor of wheelchair rugby, kept phoning me to try and talk me into trying it, but I kept saying I wasn’t interested.
Finally, Duncan called Bobby and told him to bring me down from Parksville, B.C., to Victoria for a "Have a Go Day." I don’t know why, but I went. I was hooked.
No wheelchair rugby team
At the time, Vancouver Island didn’t have a wheelchair rugby team and I didn’t have a license, so Bobby would take me on the ferry twice a week to Vancouver to go to practice.
We would drive over the Ironworker’s Memorial Bridge and get food at the Subway on Pender Street, then we’d bust our asses when practice ended at 8 p.m. to make the last ferry at nine. We did this twice a week for several years.
Finally, we started up a team in Victoria so that I could have a third practice each week. It wasn’t anything professional – most of the guys played in their everyday chairs – but Bobby was right there coaching and helping out.
Though he wasn’t a natural mechanic – duct tape remains his favourite tool – he started repairing wheelchairs. He became the equipment manager for the BC B team, then the A team.
I made the national team in 2006 and moved to Vancouver. In 2008, I won a bronze medal at the Beijing Paralympic Games. My whole family was there and I waved to them in the stands as our national anthem played.
By 2012, Bobby was the equipment manager for the national team. He and I marched in together at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, side by side. He’s a part of the team now, there for the highs and lows. Our wins are his wins.
It would be an understatement to say that Bobby is a unique guy. He’s a wanderer, always off on an adventure.
There are no strangers in Bobby’s world. After one day in a hotel, he’s made friends with all the staff and half of the guests.
He’s known for his crazy pranks and his love of a good laugh, especially if that prank goes a little awry. (Once, for example, he jokingly tried to set a guy’s wheel on fire and accidentally scorched the gym floor).
It’s about family
So, yes, Bobby’s a unique guy, but our story is not unique in the parasport world. No one, able-bodied or disabled, gets into sport alone. Behind every athlete competing for their country are dozens of friends and family members who drove them to practice, helped to purchase a sport wheelchair, or provided a shoulder to cry on after a tough loss.
Beneath the tank-like wheelchairs, the tattoos and the crashes, wheelchair rugby is all about family.
Our team is a family and I like to think that we have some of the best fans in the world. I’m always proud to wear the Maple Leaf, but it’s even more special to wear it on home soil, especially when you get to look down the bench and see your dad grinning back at you.
I don’t need Bobby to drive me to practice anymore. I live in Vancouver with my fiancée Lisa and our dog Rootbeer. I drive a car, am studying marketing, travel the world with wheelchair rugby, and in a few weeks, I’ll marry the love of my life. (Bobby is in charge of the wedding conga line. You should see him dance to Harry Belafonte).
As a wheelchair rugby player, I work hard every day to be seen as a high-performance athlete. What’s often overlooked, however, is how much wheelchair rugby changes lives on and off the court.
It’s hard to say where I’d be without this sport, but I wouldn’t have met my future wife at the HoJo in Victoria at a training camp, and I certainly wouldn’t be here in Toronto playing to a sold-out crowd with the Maple Leaf on my chest.
The Parapan Am Games are giving wheelchair rugby an audience that it’s never had in Canada before.
Suddenly, wheelchair rugby is in the newspapers, on webcasts and on TV. I hope that when the Games start, there’s a guy or girl with a disability watching who sees the hard hits and the speed and the strategy and thinks, “hey, maybe I can do this.”
And if he does, I hope he has a dad like Bobby.