YORKTON - Regular readers are no doubt aware that while I have rather varied tastes in sport, I also happen to favour rugby – the sport in all its forms rating in the top-five for me – and that includes wheelchair rugby.
The interest in wheelchair rugby probably started with the 2005 film Murderball, which was likely filmed to give more weight to the physicality of the sport than actually exists in most games, but it sure did grab my attention.
As such I was interested in a recent online post where Wheelchair Rugby Canada announced the 12 athletes who would represent Canada at the 2022 World Wheelchair Rugby Americas Championship in Medellin, Colombia.
Canada, currently ranked sixth internationally, starts the group stage March 9 with games against both Brazil and Columbia, then takes on Argentina on the 10th, the USA on the 11th, and Chile the 12th.
The event is an important one for Team Canada as a top-three finish will secure a berth into the WWR World Championships in October.
If Canada is to do well, Zak Madell from Edmonton will be a key performer as a veteran player who made his international debut at the 2011 Americas qualification tournament.
“It’s coming up quick,” Madell told Yorkton This Week only a couple of days before heading south. “. . . It’s just nice to get out there and have some other team to crash into.”
Madell said the team has had limited games through the COVID pandemic, and that means when they have gathered to practice it has meant banging chairs with teammates more than usual.
“But, we all get along. There’s no animosity,” he assured, adding “we like to think we let off a little bit.”
Then Madell admitted it is only a little they hold back in practice.
“It is rugby after all,” he said. “. . . It’s not a sport for the faint of heart. You pretty much want to run into whoever, wherever.”
So how did Madell become involved in the sport.
“I grew up being a pretty physical child before my amputations,” he said, noting while he played several sports lacrosse had been his favourite. “. . . A big part of that was the physicality.”
So after he lost his fingers and legs to a septic staph infection, he was an athlete looking for a new sport.
“After his recovery, Madell first got involved in sledge hockey, but he was unable to hold the stick well enough to play at a high level,” notes wheelchairrugby.ca “Next, he was introduced to wheelchair basketball, which appealed to his competitive nature and his love of speed. Finally, he was recruited to wheelchair rugby in 2011 and has experienced a meteoric rise in the sport ever since.”
Rugby appealed to Madell for one simple reason, he said.
“I got to run over other people,” he told YTW.
And, Madell said he has found a group of like-minded teammates too.
“It’s like a family here on this team,” he said.
If that is the case Madell is the successful son.
Despite having played for just over a year, he earned a spot on the team for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, states wheelchairrugby.ca “The coaching staff originally intended to give Madell only limited playing time, but he consistently performed above expectations and handled the pressure of the Paralympics with a smile on his face. His performance was the wild card that lifted Canada to victory in its semi-final upset of the number one-ranked American team.”
From there Madell has continued to shine. He was named MVP of the 2014 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Odense, Denmark, the 2014 Canada Cup International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament, and the 2015 World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge. His biggest honour came when he was named Team Canada’s flagbearer of the Closing Ceremony of the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, after leading the team to its first gold medal in 13 years.
The event in Colombia is a step in regaining some standing in terms of Canada on the world stage, following a fourth-place team finish at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, and fifth in the 2020 Paralympics, and having slipped to sixth in world standings as France moved up to fifth. A win at the Americas Championship might lift Canada back up in the rankings.
While Madell said as a program they are not happy with recent finishes or the current ranking there is an upside in the sense it shows continued growth in the sport on a worldwide basis.
“It shows how much the sport is coming along,” he said, adding it was not so many years ago Canada would go into many games expected to win, but now it’s anybody’s game among the top-10-12 countries, and other countries are getting close, including those in South America, they will play at the Americas Championship.
“Every time we see them they’ve improved more and more,” offered Madell.
And, of course the USA is always tough, and is Canada’s primary rival.
“Every time it’s sort of a coin toss, but we have a very good shot at beating them,” said Madell.