By Stuart Miller-Davis
After a train accident during a high school exchange to France in 1983 left her with a broken back, Stittsville’s Collinda Joseph was looking for a sport that would fit her new reality.
Her first choice was wheelchair basketball, which she played for many years, before finding it not to be quite the right fit.
“I realized that the sport wasn’t giving me what I wanted anymore,” Joseph told the Sports Pages.
“In terms of, first of all, it being fun, and secondly, it starting to have an impact on me physically — because I was having a lot of shoulder and neck issues. I realized that if I was using a wheelchair over time, I would have to save my shoulders and my neck.”
So, when the RA Centre hosted a “learn to wheelchair curl” event, Joseph decided to give it a try.
“I went out and tried it and sort of really liked it,” Joseph, who was a silver medallist as an alternate with Canada’s team at the 2020 World Wheelchair Curling Championship, said.
When she first tried wheelchair curling about a decade-and-a-half ago, some barriers to playing consistently existed, so it took Joseph awhile before she curled on a regular basis.
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“To get into an actual league took some time because the leagues themselves are run by people who don’t have disabilities,” she recalled. “So, they were a little nervous about having us play in an able-bodied league.”
Eventually, Joseph found a space in a league at the North Grenville Curling Club in Kemptville, where she and three other wheelchair curlers competed on Monday nights against the same team of able-bodied curlers.
Today, the RA Centre is home to the Capital Wheelchair Curling Club, which is one of the largest clubs of its kind in the country.
Patrice Dagenais’ story of how he found wheelchair rugby isn’t unlike Joseph’s.
After suffering a spinal cord injury in a construction accident as a teenager, the former hockey player was searching for another contact game.
Dagenais tapped a connection he had who played with the Ottawa Stingers, the local wheelchair rugby team, who introduced him to the game. He was instantly hooked.
Dagenais is now the Stingers’ captain, and a decorated member of Team Canada’s wheelchair rugby team, having won multiple international medals including a silver medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
One of the big reasons the Stingers have been successful as a club is because of their strong online presence, Dagenais said.
“We are visible online, so it’s easy for someone to search and find us,” he said. “We have a website and you can find us through various websites like OnPara, which is the Ontario parasport network website.”
Another way the club is accessible is thanks to its presence at the Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre. The team regularly visits the centre and practices nearby.
“There are some patients that are going through rehab or even some recreational therapists that can always recommend our club to some of the patients that they’ve seen in the past. So, we’re welcoming everybody that wants to get involved,” Dagenais said.
In terms of popularity, sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball reign king among parasports in Ottawa, according to Reid Mulligan, the president of the National Capital Sports Council of the Disabled. The council is a not-for-profit volunteer-run organization started in 1983 that provides financial support to local sporting organizations for people with disabilities.
However, while sledge hockey remains popular in the Ottawa area with its around 60 members spanning all ages, Sledge Hockey Eastern Ontario’s vice-president Mia Van Bemmel told the Sports Pages that its membership has been trending downward.
“A lot of our members have just gotten older,” she said. “Some have retired while others have moved away for school… But we are starting to see a little bit more of an uptick in the very in a much younger population. Our development team has been growing in the last couple of seasons.”
Van Bemmel said sledge hockey’s popularity benefits from it being a team sport, which means there’s more opportunity for athletes to be introduced through their personal connections.
At the end of the day, Mulligan said fostering involvement in parasports relies on connecting with the community and increasing sport visibility.
“Anyone of any age can play sports, it’s about getting that out there and getting that to different groups of people,” Mulligan said.