wheelchair rugby finals, parapan am games 2015

The 2015 Pan Am Games and Parapan Am Games were held in Toronto and the GTA this summer. Although I regard these events as a ridiculous waste of money, a very bad deal for residents of the host cities, there was one very bright upside for me: the opportunity to see some disability sports, nearby and at a very high level of play.

Mississauga hosted wheelchair rugby and goalball. I saw goalball at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, and it is a unique and thrilling sport, played by blind athletes. Wheelchair rugby is irresistible, as millions have discovered through the excellent documentary "Murderball".

I couldn't get to goalball, but I snagged good seats to the wheelchair rugby finals, which eventually sold out. I went with a friend who had never seen - or even thought about - wheelchair sports before. When we got to the arena, we learned that the gold medal game was between the US and Canada, the same teams that face off in Murderball.

Bronze medal game: Colombia vs. Brazil

In the bronze medal game, Colombia played Brazil. The game started with dull, lacklustre play, not at all what we expected. It looked more like a trial game in a rehab centre than elite international play. But gradually, speed and strategy picked up.

One Colombian player began to dominate the court, not with size or strength, but with agility and finesse. (I think it was Jhon Orozco Nunez, wearing number 4, but I'm not positive.) He used his torso to pivot and swivel and wind his way through openings. The crowd noticed him and began to cheer his every move, and his game came on stronger and faster. By the last quarter, the stands were packed, and every time #4 touched the ball, the crowd went wild. (Also, Brazil had been cleaning up in the medal count, so many people were cheering against them, for the underdog.)

Brazil ramming crowd favourite #4
Despite our favourite #4, the teams were well matched, and the score was neck and neck throughout. In the end, Colombia won the bronze medal: final score 50-48.

Gold medal game: USA vs. Canada

By the time the gold medal game started, the stands were completely packed, a sea of Canada red with the occasional Stars and Stripes visible here and there. The North American players were noticeably bigger and more athletic looking than the South American players. My friend and I were both struck by the difference, leading us to speculate about the difference in healthcare, rehab opportunities, even nutrition and education. Most wheelchair athletes must travel in order to practice and play in tournaments. Depending on where they live, their opportunities to actually play their sport may be very limited.

The game was wild. The US took an early lead, with Canada playing catch-up right from the start, down four or six points. The American team was so strong, we felt that if Canada fell further behind, it was cooked.

Canadian Zak Madell
Just as #4 emerged as the crowd favourite in the bronze medal game, Canadian Zak Madell, wearing #33, quickly established himself as the dominant player. He seemed to either score or assist in every goal. Once he touched the ball he was virtually unstoppable, at one point frustrating four defenders to score. But every time Canada scored and threatened to tie the game, the US would edge further ahead.

Madell with the ball, as usual
In the third quarter, Canada finally tied the score, and the crowd went insane. The score seesawed back and forth, each team squeaking out a goal, then the other team answering with a goal of their own. Finally, with the crowd roaring, Canada took the lead in the fourth quarter, and held it throughout, winning the gold with a score of 57-54.

I ducked out before the medal ceremony, as it was already late and I was working the following morning, which gave me an out from the national anthem issue. (It looks very disrespectful when I sit for the Star Spangled Banner, then stand for O Canada.)

The gold medal wheelchair rugby game was the highest level of play I've ever seen in a wheelchair game. I took a ton of pictures, which are not very good - partly because I was not on the sidelines with a huge lens like the professionals, and partly from my inexperience with sports photography. But if you're interested, they are here.

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