Back to the podium for the Australian Rollers

Jannik Blair of Australia warms up prior to the Wheelchair Basketball World Challenge Cup match against Turkey in 2017  (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)
Jannik Blair of Australia warms up prior to the Wheelchair Basketball World Challenge Cup match against Turkey in 2017 (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Jannik Blair is on a mission to help Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team win a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games after a disappointing result in Rio

Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team, known as the Rollers, enjoyed great success on the Paralympic stage with two gold and two silver medals between Atlanta 1996 and London 2012.

The Rollers were heartbreakingly close to clinching gold for a third time in London however, at Rio 2016 despite being the reigning world champions and ranked world no.1, they lost to eventual bronze medallist Great Britain in quarter-finals.

For London 2012 silver medallist Jannik Blair, the goal is to return to the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

“We as a programme expect to always be in the podium at a major tournament. That's certainly the goal for Tokyo. I think it's a realistic goal for us,” Blair, who became a paraplegic at 12 when the ute (pick up truck) he was driving flipped and rolled, told Tokyo 2020.

“We don't think that we need to drop out of that podium position to do a rebuilding stage. That's something that we think we can avoid doing if we maintain the programme, constantly debut new players and maintain sort of that balance between experience and young players.”

Joey Johnson of Canada challenges Jannik Blair of Australia during the gold medal Wheelchair Basketball at the London 2012 Paralympic Games (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Joey Johnson of Canada challenges Jannik Blair of Australia during the gold medal Wheelchair Basketball at the London 2012 Paralympic Games (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

The redemption begins

The Australian Rollers campaign in Rio did not go to plan. A sixth place finish after a 23-point loss in the quarter-finals was their lowest finish in 16 years.

“We were exposed during games where it was obvious that we hadn't spent enough time playing together,” Blair explained before adding, “We hadn't spent enough time together in high pressure environments that have super tight score lines late in the game to be able to perform without letting it get to you, rely on teammates, trust them and have faith that they'll be there whatever the situation is.”

But it was a lesson that led to slight changes within the team.

After Rio 2016, Craig Friday was appointed the new head coach with five-time Paralympian Brad Ness appointed as assistant. Meanwhile, the playing group remained much the same with adjustments to the core starting five and their overall playing style.

It didn’t take long for Australia to find themselves on the podium again with a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships before qualifying for Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 Asia Oceania Championships, where they beat Republic of Korea in the final.

“To have some success straight away was really important and reassuring to us,” the Horsham born Paralympian said of the World Championship result, “We've had four years together, although the last year we haven't been able to get together. We're going to Tokyo knowing it works, looking forward to another opportunity to be able to demonstrate that.”

Obviously, preparations haven’t been smooth sailing despite Australia’s handling of the pandemic. With internal border closures between states being unpredictable, resulting in training camps being postponed with players unable to travel between states without enforced 14-day hotel quarantine, the last time the Rollers were all together was at the Olympic qualifying event in December 2019.

With preparation being a key part to a successful campaign for the Rollers, there were concerns heading into an Olympic year.

“We've learned from experiences we've had in the past where we weren't able to prepare well together and we didn't perform so we're aware that it's pivotal for us to be able to get together, as many of us as we can, for a long period of high-quality training and preparation as possible,” said Blair, who currently resides in Spain.

Thankfully, the Australian-based players have recently been able to ramp up their Paralympic preparations at a camp in Canberra, but for Blair and the other overseas-based Rollers they are hoping to return to Australia as soon as their respective seasons are complete.

“It's hard to plan anything more than a couple of days ahead here, let alone a couple of months,” Blair said. “There are so many question marks and I certainly don't envy the coaching staff that have to try and plan that.”

A Spanish lifestyle

For the past three years, the 28-year-old has been living in Bilbao, Spain playing in the country’s top-flight wheelchair basketball league – División de Honor.

After spending four years in the United States, where he played with the University of Alabama after a stint with the University of Missouri, Blair took up an off to join BSR Bidaideak Bilbao, following Rio 2016.

“I think the everyone would be on the same page in saying that the Spanish league is the strongest – the European leagues are the strongest in the world,” he said.

“It's the deepest in terms of the depth, talent and the regularity of competition. You're playing against a different team every weekend in the strong field with international talent around the world. You can only get better the longer here.”

With the league in Spain giving the Australian everything he needs to be at the top of his game, Blair is hoping to continue is stay in Spain after Tokyo 2020. Unsure of whether he will be staying with Bilbao, its been a wonderful four seasons.

“It's been an awesome experience, but I think I'm more leaning toward something new. New teammates, new city, new experience, while some still relatively young and can do it,” Blair said before adding, “I want to try to experience as much as I can in Europe.”

Paralympic gold in mind

There’s no doubt that a gold medal is the hope and goal of athletes headed to any Paralympic Games. Blair came agonisingly close to achieving that dream at the age of 20, when Australia made the gold medal match of the men’s wheelchair basketball tournament at London 2012.

Four years later, it was the goal once again but it didn’t go to plan.

“It's certainly our goal again now for this year as it is the goal for many other teams, which is why it's such a hard thing to achieve,” Blair said.

“I'm lucky enough, in the sense, that I think I've probably got a few more Paralympics in me. It would be nice to be able to get it done this year and not have to worry about it in the future.

“It gives you chills just thinking about the prospect of winning. I'm looking forward to the challenge.”

Jannik Blair of Australia in action during Men's Wheelchair Basketball match against Japan at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
Jannik Blair of Australia in action during Men's Wheelchair Basketball match against Japan at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

The men’s wheelchair basketball tournament at Tokyo 2020 will take place between 25 August – 5 September at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.

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