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Saskatchewan Paralympic athletes return

author: john loeppky | sports editor

paralympics
Regina’s own Miranda Biletski in action/Parasport Danmark via Flickr

Area products shine wearing the maple leaf

The Rio Paralympics just finished and two Regina athletes featured heavily in the action: wheelchair rugby’s Miranda Biletski and basketball’s Nikola Goncin.

Now, neither team ended up with the result they wanted. The rugby team, which entered in ranked third in the world, lost in the bronze-medal game to the team from Japan. Meanwhile, the men’s wheelchair basketball team finished a disappointing eleventh after landing in Rio as the previous champions. Other Saskatchewan products included Prince Albert’s Erica Gavel and Saskatoon’s (by way of BC) Katie Miyazaki, who spent time as an assistant coach for the women’s wheelchair basketball team, which ended their campaign coming in fifth.

In all, eight athletes made the trek to South America from Saskatchewan, with two coaches and two support staff in tow. World-renowned track coach Rick Reelie, owner of six Paralympic medals, helped oversee the Canadian track team while the aforementioned Miyazaki (winner of a silver medal at the 2015 Canada Games with Team Saskatchewan) spent her time strategizing on the sideline.

Other provincial athletes included swimming’s Samantha Ryan and Morgan Bird, cycling’s Shawna Ryan, racer Ilana Dupont, and sailor Logan Campbell.

Saskatchewan has rich tradition in wheelchair sport, as evidenced by the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame’s recent exhibition about the work of disabled athletes in the province.

One of the most famous was all-around athlete Clayton Gerein. A seven-time Paralympian, the dominant wheelchair racer and 2011 Canadian Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame inductee won nine medals in a span from 1984 until his retirement in 2008. A battle with cancer led to his death in 2010, but a funding program established in his name by the Saskatchewan Wheelchair Sports Association, which this particular sports editor has benefited from, has helped other athletes follow his path to excellence.

Another famous Saskatchewan disabled athlete is Lisa Franks. Born in Moose Jaw, Franks was a two-sport athlete in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair racing. She won six gold medals and competed in Sydney, Athens, and Beijing.

Perhaps one of this province’s best Paralympic examples is Colette Bourgonje. She has competed in ten Paralympic Games spanning two sports, wheelchair racing and skiing. She won nine medals and has been a champion for wheelchair sports and for all members of society to get active, all while still competing.

To give you some context as to how tight-knit the wheelchair sports community is, I bought my first basketball wheelchair from Colette eleven years ago. I have competed with Nik, Erica, and Miranda, winning national championship medals with all three. I have trained with Rick Reelie and spent time as a teammate, albeit as a bench-warming twelve-year-old, with Lisa. I still think is one of the best athletes I’ve ever met. Katie was my coach for four years. Before that, another Paralympian, Stewart McKeown, had to put up with my on-the-court shenanigans.

This is a bit self-serving to say, but I think this is part of the reason all sports fans should watch the Paralympics. There are excellent displays of athleticism – even without the hero/inspirational narrative – and the drama is just as real as for the much more boring able-bodied version. This is a community that helps promote independence, health living, and provides goals for people in a world that can be exclusionary and downright discriminatory.

About John Loeppky

I am an athlete with a writing problem, or a writer with a sports problem, you decide. When I’m not editing, playing wheelchair sports, or advocating for the disabled, you can find me de-stressing with friends.