When Austin Hinchey was 10 years old he decided he’d had enough surgeries — 13 of them — and it was time to amputate his lower leg and get rid of the brittle bone disease.
At first, he didn’t like people to know and he certainly didn’t want them to see his amputated left leg. He wore pants and used a flesh-coloured prosthetic with foam pads to mimic, as much as possible, a real leg. He even swam with it, though that was much harder than swimming without it.
But now, as captain of Canada’s sitting volleyball team, Hinchey happily yanks off his prosthetic leg and hops on to the court to play sport at its highest level.
That some athletes essentially disable themselves to play is one of the lesser known things about para sport.
In sitting volleyball or swimming they take off prosthetic limbs to compete. In goalball, athletes with partial vision wear blackout eyeshades to ensure they can’t see anything. In wheelchair basketball or rugby, some athletes get into wheelchairs, which they don’t normally use, to play the game.
That means para sport isn’t just the tale of people overcoming physical challenges to play sport; it’s athletes embracing their impairment and, in many cases, being better for it on the field of play.
“It’s the total reverse effect,” Hinchey explains.
“When I wear my leg and walk around most people would assume I’m able-bodied and if I sat down to play the way I am now, for sure I’d be worse,” says the 23-year-old Edmonton native.
“When I take my leg off, it frees me up and gets my leg out of the way and I can play better without it. It’s unique in that sense — I become more disabled but it improves my performance as an athlete.”
This all makes a lot of sense to him now but wrapping his head around it didn’t come instantly.
“It’s a funny concept for me because I didn’t originally like showing off that I’m disabled. When I was young, especially, my legs were always covered.”
He may have preferred that people didn’t know he was put together a little differently but Hinchey never felt limited by his amputation.
“I thought I could do anything and it would work out,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any barriers or limitations.”
That’s the attitude that took him through five years of able-bodied varsity volleyball. Hinchey played three years of volleyball at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, where he was named MVP, and then he really defied the odds when he made the team at the University of British Columbia for his final two years of eligibility.
“I still train with some of the college teams and I can play pretty high level men’s league but my focus right now is on sitting volleyball and trying to medal at Toronto and ultimately qualify for Rio,” Hinchey says.
To get to the 2016 Rio Paralympics, the men’s team needs to win gold or come second to Brazil, which has already qualified, at the Parapan Am Games. The women’s team needs to finish ahead of Cuba.
Canada’s teams are both ranked in the top 20 internationally but at the August 7-15 Parapan Ams, the only two countries ahead of them are Brazil and the U.S.
At the 2011 Guadalajara Games, Hinchey and his teammates won the bronze medal. Toronto’s Games are the debut for women’s sitting volleyball in the Parapan Ams.
While Canada’s primary goal at the upcoming games is to qualify for Rio, the secondary goal is growing the sport.
“It’s still a fairly unknown sport,” says Ray Sewell, head coach of the men’s sitting volleyball team.
“We want to get it out there, hopefully put on a good showing and maybe find some new athletes. It’s a pretty small number right now, which is challenging,” he says, noting the team has little depth to withstand injuries or retirement.
Canada’s national sitting program started less than a decade ago, in 2007, and Hinchey was one of the first players.
He’s played every type of volleyball there is to play: indoor, beach, standing disabled (before it was taken out of the Paralympic program) and sitting.
That extensive volleyball background is part of what makes Hinchey such a valuable player, Sewell says.
He’s also got the key physical components to being a great sitting player: “long arms, long torso and, usually, a lower body amputation.”
In the sitting game, some leg provides support and helps athletes move around the floor — this is a fast game — but too much leg slows them down.
“A lot of the best players are like me,” Hinchey explains. “They’re a below knee amp on one side or a one side leg amp.’
And during the game all their prosthetic legs gather dust on the sidelines.
“One of the cool things about Paralympic sports is how the sports work when you lose the prosthetics or apparatus that you use to make you more able-bodied,” he says. “When you get rid of those to play a para sport, you’re always better.”