By Emma Zhao
The Canadian wheelchair rugby team is headed in hot for the Santiago 2023 Parapan American Games – which begin on Friday with the Opening Ceremonies in Chile’s capital city – and they’re keen to grab the Paris 2024 Paralympics berth awarded to the tournament champion.
Co-captained by local player Patrice Dagenais, Team Canada is fresh off a silver medal performance at last month’s Wheelchair Rugby World Cup, where they took down a number of the sport’s heavyweights in Paris less than a year before the big show.
Canada went undefeated with three tight victories in the round robin, including wins over world #2 Australia and reigning Paralympic champion Great Britain, before downing France 51-50 in the semi-final and then falling 53-48 in a rematch with Australia in the World Cup championship game.
Dagenais recalled how intense the first few games were. Canada won three of its four matches leading up to the final by one point. He said the performance was a much-needed source of motivation for their team.
“That was a confidence booster for our team,” the Embrun resident underlined. “It was nice that the chemistry was really good after all these wins, knowing that … every player is contributing in their own way.”
A month prior to the World Cup, the team participated in boot camps, which he credited as helping boost team spirit. He believes that part of the team’s success is a result of good synergy between the players. During the games, he said that players on and off the court communicated with each other, which also bolstered the morale.
Head coach Patrick Côté and Dagenais are both hopeful that Team Canada’s success in the World Cup will help their performance in Santiago, where they’ll play five pool phase games in four days from Nov. 18-21, with semi-finals and medal matches set for Nov. 22 and 23.
As a veteran of the sport, the 39-year-old Dagenais will play a significant role in the success of the team, highlighted Côté. While he is the head coach, Côté said he relies on the leadership of older players on the team.
“I’m just a facilitator,” Côté indicated. “It’s really the players that are leading the way.”
Côté said he believes that having a strong leadership group within the team was key to their success in Paris.
Dagenais has been the co-captain of the team for most of a decade, and has been particularly instrumental in fostering an inviting and competitive environment.
“He’s one of our most vocal leaders,” Côté noted. “His personality also makes him the one everybody talks to.”
Côté said that Dagenais’s humble nature shines most when fostering a competent and collaborative team.
This will be necessary for the Parapan American Games, where Canada will have to compete with the U.S. team, ranked number one in the world and home to its own domestic professional wheelchair rugby league.
Wheelchair rugby joined the Parapan Am Games in 2015, and Canada and America have met in all of the finals so far. While Canada won gold at home in Toronto in 2015, the Americans were able to earn top spot in 2019.
Winning the Parapan tournament is Canada’s fastest and preferred path to Paris, though three more berths will be awarded at World Wheelchair Rugby’s Paralympic Qualification Tournament next spring.
Dagenais said that with such an experienced and capable team, Canada should be able to do very well.
“We believe that if we play well, if we perform the way we can, we can come out victorious in those games,” signalled the three-time Paralympian who won silver in his 2012 debut and placed fifth at the most recent Games in Tokyo.
With the sport becoming more and more competitive, Dagenais is looking forward to seeing what his team can accomplish in the future. Ultimately, he is excited to see the sport grow not only internationally, but also on a local level.
“We want to keep seeing more clubs, more teams, and when it comes to the Ottawa region … we’re hoping to get more people involved in our sport,” outlined the president of the Ottawa Stingers wheelchair rugby club.
He added that he feels wheelchair rugby deserves just as much recognition and praise as any other sport.
“You get to learn from other players that most likely have some challenges like yours,” explained Dagenais, who became paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a construction accident at age 18. “So it’s a really good sport to improve your quality of life and to enjoy some nice experiences.”
Ottawa-powered Canadian women’s goalball team faces do-or-die for Paris qualification
Wheelchair rugby isn’t the only Parapan sport where Paralympic qualification is on the line. For the Canadian women’s goalball team, which features a trio of Ottawa athletes, the stakes are even higher.
The number of goalball teams was reduced to eight for Paris from the 10 that participated in recent Games and the Parapan Am Games will serve as the final Paralympic qualification opportunity for all teams in the region. There is only one berth available for a group that includes Brazil, Canada and USA, which placed third, fourth and fifth respectively at August’s International Blind Sports Federation World Games.
Team Canada captain Amy Burk told the Ottawa Sports Pages in September that she recognizes that they’ve got a tough challenge to reach the Paralympics, but that she believes that Canada is right up there with the best on the planet, and if they do qualify, the team’s expectations will be to get on the podium come Paris.
Burk is joined by fellow Ottawa players Whitney Bogart and Emma Reinke on the Canadian women’s goalball team.
Other athletes from the area set to compete in Santiago are Ottawa’s Keegan Gaunt (athletics) and Sam Charron (CP soccer), Cornwall’s Aaron Prévost (men’s goalball) and Deep River’s Kyle Tremblay (archery) and Annie-Marie Dolinar (wheelchair tennis).
The Parapan Am Games run until on Nov. 26. Livestreaming will be available via cbcsports.ca.
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