Paralympics

In 2 crazy weeks, Erica Gavel defended masters thesis and qualified Canada for Tokyo 2020

Since joining Canada's national wheelchair basketball team in 2014, Erica Gavel has balanced sport and education. But the two worlds came to a boiling point this past summer and the experience will help Gavel stay balanced in Tokyo 2020 where she'll compete but also see her research applied directly to athletes.

The wheelchair basketball player is now getting her Ph.D, which may come in handy during the Paralympics

Before playing on the national wheelchair basketball team, Gavel was a guard on the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. (Canadian Paralympic Committee )

In May 2019, wheelchair basketball player Erica Gavel was in the midst of a three-week stretch competing in Europe with Canada's national team, while also facing a six-week deadline to finish her masters thesis, which typically takes four to six months.

There was a point sitting in a hotel room in France where Gavel didn't know if she could do it.

"If I wanted to start my Ph.D in September, it needed to be done," Gavel told CBC Sports. "And it got done, but my Ph.D supervisor Dr. Heather Logan-Sprenger can attest to many crisis calls from different parts of the world and tears in multiple meetings."

This is just a glimpse into one of the many high-pressure moments in Gavel's juggling act as a Ph.D student-athlete. Since getting a full-time spot on the national team's roster in 2014, the 28-year-old from Prince Albert, Sask., graduated university, helped Canada to a fifth-place finish at Rio 2016, helped the team qualify for Tokyo 2020, successfully defended her masters thesis, and started her Ph.D program.

And because her research is on maintaining athletic performance in high temperatures and Tokyo 2020 could be one of the hottest Games in history, national sport organizations have reached out to apply that research at the Summer Olympics. 

So Gavel is ready to head to Japan next summer as both an athlete and researcher, taking her juggling act to the next level. 

Menthol mouth-rinse

Her two worlds in sport and academia began to collide because of the powers of menthol mouth rinse. During her masters thesis, Gavel came across studies on male athletes using it to help regulate body temperatures and wanted to do similar testing on female athletes. 

"Menthol increases activity of the cold receptors in the mouth," Gavel explained. From there, "it increases activity in the reward centres of the brain.

"Following that, one can expect an increase in power output and improvement of performance."

So working alongside Dr. Scott Thomas and Dr. Ira Jacobs at the University of Toronto, Gavel and her team replicated Tokyo temperatures and conducted time trials with female cyclists. They found the mouth rinse increased their performance by 2.3 per cent, which was significant since the difference between a first- and fourth-place finish is 0.9 per cent, and the difference between first and eighth is 2.5 per cent. 

"I'm not saying the menthol will win medals," Gavel said. "But it could help." 

And experts agree. Institutions such as Own the Podium, Wheelchair Rugby Canada and the University of Waterloo have joined to continue the research, and multiple national sport organizations have reached out to apply it to their athletes. 

"It's pretty cool and not something that I actually thought would happen to see that research being used across Paralympic and Olympic sport," Gavel said. "It's definitely a humbling type of thing to be a part of."

Pressure cooker

Her research led to that critical point in Europe in the spring and summer of 2019. Team Canada was travelling around the world to prepare for an Olympic qualifier at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Puru that August. Gavel was writing the entire time, finding the six- to 10-hour stretches on planes the best time to work.

"Throughout the training camp or tournament I would write a couple hours in the morning, maybe an hour in the afternoon, and then two to three hours in the evening," Gavel said. "It was a lot, but at the same time, what I really appreciated about that experience was it forced me to push [harder] in my training sessions because I wasn't thinking about basketball in the hours before.

"In hindsight, I think it benefited my performance versus hindered it."

Despite the hectic schedule, Gavel finished her thesis on time and then defended it the same day she left for Peru.

"I took transit to U of T with my suitcase, defended my thesis, went for a really nice lunch with my committee and friends from school," Gavel said. "And from lunch I jumped in an Uber to the airport."

Days later, she and Canada's wheelchair basketball team would win gold, qualifying Canada for Tokyo 2020. But there wasn't a ton of time to celebrate: she started her Ph.D program 10 hours after getting home from Lima.

"It was a humbling experience because in 48 hours I went from being the Parapan Am gold medallist and finding out we're going to the Paralympics, to then going to the first day of school and being at the bottom of the totem pole," Gavel said, laughing. 

"It was pretty funny, I'm not going to lie." 

Paralympic application

Gavel credits her ability to balance both worlds to her teammates both on the court and in the classroom. Logan-Sprenger is a retired national cyclist and hockey player, so between her understanding of an athlete and the flexibility from basketball coaches Michael Frogley and Marc Antoine Ducharme, Gavel felt confident she can continue her balancing act. 

"Without their support I would not be able to do both at the same time," Gavel said. "Whatever I've accomplished and will accomplish in the next four years is because of my supervisors and committees and coaches in both institutions.

"I'm not even exaggerating. It would be impossible."

Gavel still studies athletic performance in heat during her Ph.D program at Ontario Tech University, but with a focus on Paralympians. She hopes to find some sort of ergonomic aid to help athletes win medals at the same Games she'll be competing at. 

"I've actually been using [my research] in my training," Gavel said. 

She hasn't done any testing on herself yet, but it's something she'll have in her back pocket as she wheels onto the court next summer in Tokyo.

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