Last Saturday, Canada’s Wheelchair Rugby team reunited again in London, Ontario for the final preparations for the first ever Wheelchair Rugby competition in the Para Pan Am Games. Local team member Cody Caldwell, who was profiled in November 2013 when he earned a spot on the team, is anxious to get started. The team leaves for Toronto on Friday, when they will move into the Athletes` village and squeeze in a practice at their games facility the Hershey Centre in Missisauga the following day.
Team members are dispersed around the country, so it`s important to spend some time together to gel again as a team. During the year, they get together every month or so for 10 to14 days based on their competition schedule, so it`s a very big commitment for the players.
After participating in the Opening Ceremonies on Friday evening, the team will play its first game against Brazil on Saturday at 5pm. The competition continues with games 5 nights in a row, culminating in the most anticipated match against their toughest opponent and biggest rival, the US team which takes place on August 12th. The Canadian team expects to make the semi-finals and are hoping to take the gold medal game on August 14thwhich would automatically qualify them for next year`s Paralympic games in Rio. The team currently ranks second in the world behind Australia, with the US team ranked right behind them in 3rd place. The rivalry between the Canadian and American teamwas famously captured in the 2005 documentary Murderball, which provided the inspiration to Cody to embrace the sport after his diving accident 7 years ago.
Preparation for team members leading up to the tournament is methodical. For the past week, the team has taken it a bit easy with what they call a `taper` week, where gym sessions are less frequent, training intensity is eased slightly and weight training down to 3 times a week. Their three and a half hour practices include traditional warm ups and stretches, drills to build specific moves, scrimmages and strategy discussions. In addition to the physical preparation, the team spends a lot of time reviewing video of their performance and particularly the performance of their opponents to develop their game plans. This week it’s a fine line between building intensity and ensuring players are rested in order to deliver the performance of a lifetime!
For the uninitiated, Wheelchair Rugby was invented in Winnipeg in 1976 by a group of quadriplegic athletes looking for a sport that allowed the participation of athletes with reduced hand and arm function. The sport is a fast-paced combination of basketball, rugby and hockey with four players per side on the court at one time. Because the game is so aggressive, injuries are inevitable, so while there are only 4 players on the court from each team, there are always 12 team players available for a game.Competing on a basketball court, players jostle for position as they try to pass a ball up the court to score by crossing a goal line with the ball in hand or lap, ensuring they touch the opponent`s goal line with two wheels while in possession of the ball.
With three years` experience on Canada`s National team, Cody looks forward to competing with home court advantage. Despite his soft-spoken manner, Cody enjoys the intensity of the sport, and is quick to explain that like hockey, this is a full-contact sport, only in this game you stop your opponent by running into them with your chair!
To see Cody and his team in action, tickets are still available, or tune into CBC which has the broadcast rights for all Para Pan events.