In the high-impact sport of wheelchair rugby, where eight athletes fearlessly jockey their wheelchairs within the confines of a regulation (28mx15m) basketball court, there is not much room to manoeuvre.
That carries over into the sport’s international rankings, where the top five teams are so competitive, and there is so little room for failure, that one or two losses at a tournament can dramatically alter the landscape.
That’s what Courtenay’s Byron Green and Team Canada learned – the hard way – when they hosted the 2016 Canada Cup, June 23-26 at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
After a strong 2015 season, Canada shot to #1 in the world (for the first time since 2002) and was looking to carry that lofty rank into the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games this September.
But their final tune-up tourney before the Games did not go as they had hoped as they finished fourth at the seven-team tourney – the first time Team Canada has not won a medal in the tournament’s 12-year history.
USA’s perfect 6-0 record earned it the gold medal. Australia and Japan claimed silver and bronze, respectively.
Their gold medal means the USA will go to Rio as world #1 with Australia moving to #2, Japan maintaining #3 and Canada slipping to #4.
Green, who said it was “super exciting” being named to the 12-person Canadian team going to the Paralympics, figures the competition in Rio will revolve around the same top teams that played in the Canada Cup.
“I think it’s going to be a very competitive Paralympics for wheelchair rugby. There’s five teams that really anything can happen sort of thing. It’s the most competitive group of teams we’ve seen since wheelchair rugby joined the Paralympics,” he said.
“The U.S. and Australia are very strong teams. We always have very good games against them. Japan and Great Britain are in the top five as well,” Green noted. The two pools for the Paralympics have Canada grouped with Great Britain, Brazil and Australia. “It should be lots of great games and good competition, so I’m looking forward to it,” Green said.
At the Canada Cup, Canada beat Sweden 54-44, Great Britain 46-44 and Switzerland 58-34 but lost 57-55 to Japan, 54-43 to Australia and 56-53 to USA.
Green notes the Canada Cup was the first time in a long time that the Canadian team had been together. They will have training camps in Victoria in July and August to help prepare for Rio, then head to London, Ont. in early September for a staging camp.
“We have access to a good training facility there, and it’s only two hours time difference from London to Rio. We’ll be there four or five days, then we fly from Toronto to Rio direct, head into the (athletes) village and get ready to go from there.”
Green says Canada’s team features a good mix of experience and youthful energy. Nine of the players were at the 2012 Paralympics in London, England while he along with Cody Caldwell and Miranda Biletski will be making their Paralympics debut.
The Games run Sept. 7-18 and with wheelchair rugby scheduled from Sept. 14-18, Green notes the Canadian team will be able to catch the opening ceremonies, enjoy the village and “Try to keep focussed for the first half of the Paralympics, and then we get down to business.”
Green, who turned 32 in April, says he is feeling great after training hard for the last couple of years and helping Canada win gold medals at both the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games and the 2015 BT World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge.
“I feel like I’m in really great shape and healthy. I haven’t had any major injuries,” he said.
Staying healthy while in Rio is a concern due to the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Olympic chiefs and the World Health Organization have issued guidelines for athletes and visitors and say the risk of catching Zika is low.
“We’ve been briefed about the Zika virus,” Green said. “The impacts of it seem fairly small as long as you take a few precautions. So nothing that appears too hard to manage.”
A week after learning he’d been selected to the Canadian team, Green received a $5,000 Team Investors Group Amateur Athletes Fund bursary.
“This bursary recognizes the dedication and leadership Byron exhibits both on the field of play and in the community,” said AthletesCAN executive director Ashley LaBrie at the time of the announcement.
“I felt pretty honoured to receive it,” Green said. “It goes to people that have quite a big impact in the community. I’ve certainly done a little bit with the wheelchair rugby community here in Vancouver and on the Island, so it was nice to be recognized for that.”
While summer has been good to Green, spring was a slightly different story – albeit one with a happy ending.
“(In March) I came out one morning and found my car had been broken into and my spare wheels (and other gear) had been taken,” said Green, who makes his home in Vancouver.
“I could still train and I still had wheels on my rugby chair, but we do get flats every so often so it’s important to have spare wheels. It was pretty devastating to find they had been taken.”
A couple of days after the story came out and Green had issued a public plea for the wheels to be returned, somebody came forward and offered to cover the cost of getting new wheels.
“That was amazing to have that happen. For someone like that to be so generous,” Green said. The wheels were found a week later – one hidden in a bush near where his car had been parked and the other a couple of blocks away near a restaurant.
“Everything kind of worked out for the best because I could cancel my order for new wheels and the (anonymous) person who came forward didn’t have to spend any money after all,” Green said.
“It was a bit of a long process – a lot of stuff that was taken I had to replace. But the wheels were definitely the big item. It was nice not to have to pay for that.”
GOAL LINES The Canada Cup takes place biannually and is considered the most prestigious wheelchair rugby tournament outside of a world championship or Paralympic Games … wheelchair rugby was developed in Canada in the 1970s and after being presented as a demonstration sport at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games made its debut as a medal sport at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games … the sport is now practised in more than 25 countries and includes men and women on the same team … two teams of at least four players each compete for four periods of eight minutes each …