Elite Athletes Who Need a Helping Hand  

By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver SunMarch 10, 2010  

Team Canada sledge hockey captain Jean Labonte: hopes people will look beyond Paralympians’ disabilities to their athletic performances.

Most able-bodied folks aren’t comfortable with disability, despite national heroes like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen.

My dad spent most of his last five years in a wheelchair. Once people saw the chair, many treated him as if his disability was contagious. In that chair,
my father was invisible, inanimate, a gimp.

Yet, there are 4.4 million Canadians with disabilities — that’s one in seven citizens.

So, it’s time to get over that squeamishness because over the next 10 days we’re going to be seeing a lot of amputees, paraplegics, visually impaired and “les autres” — the Paralympic category that includes people with muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and “any disabilities that do not fall into the
other categories.”

We’re going to see the world’s fastest visually impaired skiers and the fastest sit-skiers blast down mountains at 100-plus kilometres an hour.

We’re going to see the world’s best sledge hockey players and, at first, it’s going to seem a bit shocking to see them on sleds so close to the ice. It’s
because there are no legs in sledge hockey. Only arms.

Using two sticks with picks, arms propel the defencemen and forwards — frontwards only, there is no skating backwards on a sled. Arms shoot. Punch, grab and cause penalties.

Arms right you if you get checked or tip over, which happens less often than you’d imagine when the player’s weight is balanced on two thin runners only
a few centimetres apart.

Goalies have no legs to block shots. They use their arms to propel them and to stop shoots. Pucks will be flying at their heads, which are at about the
level of a standup goalie’s stomach. It gives facing down pucks a whole new meaning.

It’s incredibly difficult. Team Canada coach Jeff Snyder tried it a couple of times. First he couldn’t find his balance. Then when he got it and they threw
the puck at him, he couldn’t do anything with it.

“I was terrible. It was embarrassing,” he says. “I found it really frustrating … It’s just too hard for me.”

Yet whenever Paralympians are interviewed, they are almost invariably asked how they lost their limbs, sight or mobility. And it’s that fact, not the fact
that they are the world’s best one-armed Nordic skier or the best wheelchair curler, that’s the story.

Canada’s sledge hockey team captain, four-time Paralympian and Canadian flagbearer Jean Labonte, has repeated thousands of times how his leg was amputated when he was 17 because of cancer. He’d rather not. But he’s philosophical about it.

“We’re still who we are and we still have our stories. If you look at it one way, it may help someone somewhere knowing that someone who had cancer or had an accident is still very active and can accomplish and can be an athlete at the elite level.”

Labonte understands that people are drawn to stories about adversity and notes how Canadians rallied behind Olympic figure skater Joannie Rochette after her mother died suddenly.

Yet he hopes that as the Paralympics gain wider coverage the focus will move beyond Paralympians’ disabilities and on to their athletic performances.

“We’re not in our sleds thinking we’re disabled. We’re just like anyone else. When we’re on the ice, we don’t think about that. We think about winning.
Yes, they [spectators] will see that we have different disabilities. . . . But we’re athletes who just happened to have an accident or a sickness or are
born like that.”

Todd Nicholson is a 23-year veteran of the national sledge hockey team, a five-time Paralympian who carried Canada’s flag at the opening ceremony in Turin.

He doesn’t mind talking about being 18 and in a car accident on the night of his high school graduation that left him a paraplegic because without that,
Nicholson says he would never have played for Canada at the international level.

“We’re not asking anybody to feel sorry for us. We’ve done more with our lives than we ever would have when it comes to a majority of the athletes competing right now,” he says.

“Everybody overcomes obstacles. You hear the Olympic athletes talking about it and they all have injuries, knee injuries, shoulders, every athlete out there has overcome some obstacle in their life and has still pushed themselves to pursue their goals and their dreams. Ours are a little more drastic.”

What the Paralympics do is provide a “comfortable way” to talk about disability, says Carla Qualtrough, a former Paralympic swimmer and president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

“I talk about how my disability affects my optimal athletic performance because if I didn’t have a disability, I would be an Olympian. That [our disability]
is what distinguishes us,” she says.

“So we talk about disability, not for the sake of talking about disability but because we know that because I can’t see, it’s going to impact how I swim.”

So instead of a description, disability is a qualifier.

As Qualtrough explains, “A sledge hockey player’s disability is as interesting as the fact that he’s a man or the fact that he’s 27 years old or any other
human characteristic that goes alongside that. But it does impact him when he plays hockey and we talk about it in a language that’s comfortable for all
of us.”

It’s tempting to say that Paralympians are better athletes than others because they are now competing at a level that’s close to that of able-bodied athletes, despite their disabilities.

But none of them thinks that way. Qualtrough said it most succinctly. “When I swam, I trained with [Olympian] Mark Tewksbury and I wouldn’t dare say I was a better athlete than him. But I wouldn’t say he’s a better athlete than me. We both got bronze medals in the same pool in the same year. So, it is what it is.”

The Paralympians I talked to hope that this Games’ legacy is that finally they are seen for what they are — elite, high-performance athletes.

But what I hope is this:

If we can talk about what kind of transportation athletes need, what different facilities they need in the athletes’ village, what technological changes
improve their performances, I hope there is a halo effect.

I hope that we can finally start looking Canada’s nearly four million disabled people in the eyes and ask what we can do to make their lives better every
day.

dbramham@vancouversun.com

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