Sport: Wheelchair Rugby
Local Club: Ottawa Stingers
By Madalyn Howitt
Canada’s men’s wheelchair rugby team boasts an experienced roster of players — and sticking out among them is Ottawa’s Patrice Dagenais.
The team has just three members making their Paralympic debuts, and most of the roster has multiple Games under their belts. The team’s co-caption, Dagenais, is both a formidable in-game leader and a determined promoter of the sport off the court.
“I like to get into situations where sometimes I’m coaching more than that that I’m playing,” said Dagenais. A 16-year veteran of the sport, Dagenais’s passion for guiding others in wheelchair rugby has helped make him the president of the Ottawa Stingers rugby club, as well as land him his leadership position with Canada’s national team.
“I think just putting all that time mentally into [wheelchair rugby] is probably why I am having success at the Paralympic level,” Dagenais said.
That’s also why he’s so appreciated by players who he’s helped introduce to the game.
Brianna Hennessy is a fellow Tokyo Paralympian who will be competing in both para-canoe and para-kayak. She first met Dagenais when she joined the Stingers after a traumatic car accident in 2014 and credits him with helping to pull her out of the deep depression that followed.
“A good coach can change a game, but a great coach can change your life,” Hennessy said of Dagenais. “He welcomed me from the start. He taught me how to play wheelchair rugby, but most importantly he inspired me to use parasports as the greatest part of my ongoing recovery, on both a physical and mental basis.”
Hennessy shared how Dagenais could always ground the team in challenging or difficult situations in games, and that the patience he shows towards his teammates is indicative of his natural leadership qualities.
“He is the epitome of integrity and sportsmanship, and his passion for wheelchair rugby is contagious,” adding that despite her own transition to competing in water sports, she still plays with Dagenais and the Stingers whenever she gets the chance.
Hennessy sings Dagenais’s praises as a leader on the court, but Dagenais himself remains humble about his impact on the sport.
“I try to lead by example on the court by just being myself,” he said. “We have a group of veterans on our team, so I’m not the only one that can keep everybody calm and composed. I think with all the experience that we have everybody’s going to feel comfortable,” he said of the tournament in Tokyo.
For someone so involved on the leadership side of the team however, Dagenais admits it was tough being away from his teammates so much this year. He had some slight worries that keeping his teammates motivated and interested in learning more about the sport over video practices could be a challenge.
That turned out not to be an issue for the national team. “Knowing that the Games were postponed and not cancelled, I think the motivation was still there [to grow],” he said.
“Now it’s been almost 14 months since we last competed in an [international] tournament, so that’s what we’re looking forward to most, playing some games against other countries.”
“He has an amazing game sense,” said Hennessy of Dagenais’s approach to competitions.
“He’s a strategic and critical thinker.” Initially starting out in hockey before making the switch to wheelchair rugby after a construction accident, Dagenais credits the coordination, speed and work ethic he learned on the ice with strengthening his rugby skills.
“We’re playing with purpose,” Dagenais said of his team. “I think mentally we should be up to the expectations that we have for ourselves. I’m looking forward [to seeing] all the hard work that we put in the last year and adjusting our style of play — that’s going to be beneficial for us against the competition.”
Wheelchair rugby continues to be one of the most high-profile Paralympic sports, and understandably so. Fast-paced and high-impact, games can attract a lot of attention from audiences.
“Everybody’s very impressed with the level of skill and intensity and the speed of the game. It really surprises people to see that these people are in wheelchairs and are hitting each other as hard as they can on the court,” said Dagenais, who hopes the positive feedback he hears from new spectators continues to draw new fans to the sport he loves.
“We’re always looking for new people that want to get involved, whether it’s as an athlete or a coach or even a volunteer,” he said.
And when it comes to coverage of the Paralympic Games, he always wants to see more.
“We believe that if people got to know the stories of the Paralympians they would really be hooked on the competitions in Tokyo,” he said. “Paralympians work as hard as the Olympians do to represent their country and — hopefully — win medals.”
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