The Canadian Wheelchair Rugby Team finds themselves in a strange position in a sport it invented and where it’s always been a global powerhouse.
Canada joins seven other nations, who all have one last chance to book their ticket for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, at the 2020 IWRF Paralympic Qualification Tournament taking place in Richmond, British Columbia next week.
Host Canada will be joined by Brazil, Colombia, France, Germany, Republic of Korea, Sweden and Thailand with the top two teams earning a spot in Tokyo.
“It is a bit of an odd situation for us because we haven’t been in a tournament like this before,” said Zak Madell, who is considered one of the top wheelchair rugby players in the world. “We take a lot of pride in wheelchair rugby in Canada because we were the innovators of the sport.”
Madell first represented his country when he was just 16 and earned himself the nickname ‘the Kid’. However, after the Rio 2016 Games, where Canada finished fourth despite being the top seed going in, the then 22-year-old stepped away from the sport. But now the Kid is now back and wanting more.
“That definitely leaves us wanting more,” Madell said.
“I think a lot of guys are keeping that feeling in the back of their mind – ‘hey we don’t want to be in this situation again’.”
So, Canada is pulling out all the stops.
“We’ll be training six days a week, sometimes twice a day anything from on court stuff to lifting weights to video meetings just to make sure that tactically we are ready,” Madell said.
And they want to be better prepared mentally as well.
Following Rio 2016, the team has been working with a new sports psychologist, who is trying to help them find ways to shut out the distractions.
Despite being a powerhouse of wheelchair rugby, Canada has never climbed to the top of the podium at the Paralympics, with the best finish being a silver medals at London 2012, Athens 2004 and Atlanta 1996.
“That’s one thing we’re trying to solve working with our team psychologist. We are trying to see what it is that’s stopping us from performing and winning gold medals in those big pressure situations when it really counts.”
If Madell is successful in leading Canada to what would be their seventh consecutive Paralympic appearance, he is hoping to face former coach, Kevin Orr, who parted ways with the national side after leading the team in London and Rio.
Orr took over as the coach of Japan in 2017 and led them to a World Championship the following year after defeating Australia in the final. Japan alongside two time defending Paralympic champions Australia, Great Britain and the United States are just some of the favourites leading into the Paralympics.
Madell, who has travelled to Japan a couple of times after he was invited to play in Japan’s National Wheelchair Rugby League, is excited by what he’s seen in the build-up to the Paralympics.
“It’s quite spectacular what they’re doing over there. There are airplanes with the whole [Japanese] wheelchair rugby team painted on the side of them. There are more Paralympic billboards than I’ve seen Olympic ones.”
He’s even seen animated cartoons featuring wheelchair rugby on TV, leaving him no doubt the Paralympics this summer will be one of the best.
First things first though, Madell knows Canada must make the final at the Paralympic Qualification Tournament but that’s not the ultimate goal.
“We want to win a [Paralympic] medal obviously gold would be ideal but it’s not going to be an easy path to get there.”