By Martin Cleary
As a young boy, Des O’Shaughnessy experienced more than his fair share of concussions.
Some of those head injuries came from hockey. Other times, he would get concussed during other activities, such as taking a ride on an amusement park rollercoaster.
Playing sports wasn’t fun anymore for O’Shaughnessy as concussions made him less active and he wondered if it was safe for him to return to practices or game action.
“I’ve had a few concussions in and out of hockey,” said O’Shaughnessy, a former houseleague player in the Kanata Minor Hockey Association system. “It (hockey) wasn’t the best fit.
“Things would happen and I’d get hit in the head. I got one on a rollercoaster and one when I slipped on ice.”
O’Shaughnessy needed a new athletic direction. About five years ago, he found it, where he least expected it.
As a Grade 6 student at Kanata Highlands Public School, he watched instructors from Abilities Centre Ottawa put on a demonstration of wheelchair basketball, which is a global sport with world championships and a home in the Paralympic Summer Games.
O’Shaughnessy was fascinated by this para sport, which is not only for people with disabilities, but also able-bodied people (though the Paralympics are reserved for athletes with classified disabilities). He was leaning towards leaving hockey and couldn’t wait to tell his mother about this new potential sports opportunity.
“It was something I had not ever played or seen,” he recalled. “It was something new to try. It would be a fresh start for me.”
O’Shaughnessy, now 16 and a Grade 11 student at West Carleton Secondary School, has committed himself to wheelchair basketball for the past six years – pandemic or no pandemic – and has made the Ontario team for the upcoming Canada Winter Games in Prince Edward Island.
Beginning Saturday and running through March 5, the Canada Winter Games will stage 20 sports and 150 events for 3,600 participants, who are the next wave of national, high-performance winter athletes.
Wheelchair basketball, which is for players 23 years old and younger at the Games, will start Monday for eight provincial teams in Charlottetown. Ontario will play Alberta, the defending Games champion from 2019, British Columbia and Manitoba in its preliminary pool.
O’Shaughnessy, who stands six feet tall and sits high in his new custom-fit wheelchair, dedicated himself to the game from the start, even though he found it quite challenging. But after a year of working on a variety of sport skills, he tried out for the Ontario junior team in 2019 and made the squad at age 13.
“It was totally new,” explained O’Shaughnessy, who was named the wheelchair basketball player of the year for 2022 at the recent Ottawa Sports Awards Dinner. “It was something I had never tried and I wanted to get to their level.
“I had fun and made friends. To get the basics and feel comfortable, it took a year to understand the game. I got better at the skills in a few years. I’m comfortable with the skills now and I’ve learned a lot. But it definitely took a while.”
O’Shaughnessy learned the game through the Junior Ravens Wheelchair Basketball program at Carleton University. He trains and competes against his teenage peers as well as the Ravens men’s wheelchair basketball team on Tuesdays.
Reaching out to sharpen his skills, O’Shaughnessy also has practised with the Burlington Vipers and the Cruisers Rockets of Mississauga. The Rockets are coached by Kathy Ludwig, the Ontario team head coach for the Canada Winter Games.
The Ontario team for the Canada Winter Games was named one year ago this month, after a series of selection and training camps. The presence of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of provincial and national championships for the past two years, which prevented Ludwig from assessing the province’s top players in game situations.
Despite a lack of traditional team competitions, O’Shaughnessy connected with his teammates through Zoom meetings and trained at his home in Carp, ON., to remain in shape and motivated.
“I stayed active and made sure I was in good physical shape. I have a big basement (in the family house) and would push my chair around,” he said.
“I would train a few times a week. I didn’t want to lose my touch and generally worked on my upper body. In my chair, I would do my drills, push hard and stop fast.”
When O’Shaughnessy started his wheelchair basketball career, he used a chair given to him by the Royals, a team in the Ottawa-Carleton Wheelchair Sports Association, which started in the mid 1970s.
But after five years, it was time for a new chair. He applied for and received a grant for $2,800, which covered slightly less than half of the price of a new chair. He has been using his custom-made chair since November.
The Ontario team recently played in a tournament, losing the final 38-34 to a team of players from Burlington and London called the Misfits. Last June, Ontario also played in the Canadian junior championship, but didn’t achieve its goal of a quality result.
“I think we’ll do a lot better (at the Games),” O’Shaughnessy predicted. “It will be a lot of fun. We’ll definitely win a few games and there will be some losses. But all around, we’ll do good.
“I was excited to be named to the team. Being on a high-performance team is a good thing, a new thing. I’m excited to keep training and seeing how good I can get.”
O’Shaughnessy also is spreading the word about wheelchair basketball at West Carleton Secondary School.
He was part of a wheelchair basketball demonstration at his high school last October with Emily Glossop, one of the Abilities Centre Ottawa’s founders (and also a recent honouree by the Ottawa Sports Awards as Mayor’s Cup winner for Outstanding Contribution to Sport in Ottawa along with her husband Todd). The school organized a team last year, participated in a high school wheelchair basketball tournament and emerged as champions.
The mixed-gender Canada Games wheelchair basketball tournament runs from Feb. 20-25 at the Chi-Wan Young Sport Centre in Charlottetown. Consult the full schedule here.
Visit our Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games central webpage for more coverage on our local athletes’ journeys to the PEI 2023 Games.
Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games Daily Newsletter
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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