Canada’s national wheelchair rugby team is ready to take on the world.
Riding a wave of momentum after beating Paralympic champion Great Britain in the Quad Nations final last month, Canada enters the Wheelchair Rugby World Championship in Denmark as a serious medal threat.
Ranked sixth internationally, the Canadians have been firing on all cylinders in 2022, showing major growth since a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Tokyo Paralympics last summer. Along with an undefeated run at the Quad Nations tournament in Wales, the team also won silver in June at the Canada Cup in Richmond, B.C.
“It’s amazing, the way we’ve kind of come together. We’ve learned so much from Tokyo, and I think we’ve really put into place the steps that we need to be a successful team,” said Shayne Smith, who has played on the team since 2017.
Canada’s 12-man roster at the world championship includes 11 members from the Tokyo Paralympic squad, with co-captains Trevor Hirschfield and Patrice Dagenais leading the way.
‘We’re dialled in’
Travis Murao, a 39-year-old team veteran who has competed at four Paralympics, said the team is feeling confident after everything came together in Wales, as they are peaking at the right time.
“We’re dialled in and we’re right there, so I think the team’s pretty excited,” Murao said.
“I think we’ve been kind of building towards the world championship, and we’ve had some good results, but we haven’t quite had the consistency that we showed in Wales, so to end on a high note before the world championship is a huge confidence boost.”
The tournament in Vejle features 12 teams, which are split into two groups for the preliminary matches. Canada is competing in Group B against top-ranked Japan, Australia (4), Denmark (7), Brazil (9) and Colombia (11).
Group A features Great Britain (2), the United States (3), France (5), New Zealand (8), Germany (10) and Switzerland (12). The top four teams from each group advance to the quarter-finals.
Canada finished sixth at the last world championship in 2018 in Sydney, Australia, where Japan captured the gold medal. The Canadians won silver at the 2014 edition and are searching for their first world title since 2002.
Smith said the team’s growth since the 2018 worlds has been immense.
“It’s the same core group of guys, and it’s such a different team. It’s really been such an amazing thing to grow with these guys and to see us grow. I’m feeling very confident about where we’re at,” Smith said.
We checked in with <a href=”https://twitter.com/ZMadell?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@ZMadell</a> to find out what the Canadian wheelchair rugby team has been up to since winning the Quad Nations Cup. Check it out and tune in to the Paralympic <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SuperSeries?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SuperSeries</a> coverage of the wheelchair rugby World Cup Oct 11-16 <a href=”https://twitter.com/WCRugbyCanada?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@WCRugbyCanada</a> <a href=”https://t.co/5x4DUXKbn3″>pic.twitter.com/5x4DUXKbn3</a>
Band of brothers
An instrumental part of that growth has been team chemistry, which grew even stronger in the wake of the pandemic. The seasoned group is gelling like never before, both on and off the court.
“Team chemistry has been especially dialled in over the last couple years,” Murao said. “I think COVID really made us realize how important it is for us to stay connected and to support each other and be each other’s support networks.
Smith said they are more like a family than a team at this point, spending time together off the court as well. The team’s close bond translates onto the court and helps them overcome adversity in tough games, a factor that can ultimately make the difference.
“You’re going to have ups and downs, but when you have each other’s backs and you know looking at the guy next to you, he has your back, there’s no replacement for that,” Smith said.
That tight-knit dynamic helped the team rebound after missing the Paralympic podium last summer.
The Canadians entered Tokyo feeling prepared and confident, but they lost some tight games and failed to reach the knockout stage. A strong performance from offensive star Zak Madell led Canada past France in the fifth-place match.
“Tokyo was devastating for us,” Murao said. “We didn’t achieve the result we set out to, but I think the whole team kind of took that and really used it as motivation. I think we’re ready to achieve a good result [in Denmark].”
Keys to success at worlds
Canada faces tough competition in the group stage, including Tokyo bronze medallists Japan and an Australian squad that always presents a major challenge. Japan edged Canada in overtime to claim gold at the Canada Cup final in June.
The Canadians will face Japan in their second match after taking on Australia in the opener.
“For all the games, but Japan especially, it’s going to be about getting out to a good start,” Murao said. “We can’t dig ourselves a hole early. I think that’s something we’ve been focusing on, and I think that’s going to be one of our keys to success.”
Murao said the key to keeping their momentum going in Denmark will be remaining focused and doing what they do best — playing as a cohesive unit.
“If we can all be on the same page and stay focused, I think we have a great chance of success.”
- Zak Madell — Okotoks, Alta.
- Fabien Lavoie — Quebec City
- Mike Whitehead — Windsor, Ont.
- Matt Debly — Windsor, Ont.
- Shayne Smith — Toronto
- Cody Caldwell — Peterborough, Ont.
- Anthony Létourneau — Boisbriand, Que.
- Travis Murao — Toronto
- Patrice Dagenais — Embrun, Ont.
- Trevor Hirschfield — Parksville, B.C.
- Eric Rodrigues — Mississauga, Ont.
- Byron Green — Vancouver