The self-descibed “Gordie Howe” of wheelchair sports, boccia player Marco Dispaltro will carry the Canadian flag at the Parapan Am Games opening ceremony Friday night.
“I still can’t believe it. I’ve got to pinch myself every other minute,” Dispaltro said after the announcement Wednesday by the Canadian Paralympic Committee.
Born with muscular dystrophy, Dispaltro was told he might not live to 40. Now 48, he cites Howe’s decades-long NHL career as an inspiration.
“He’s been a legend for so many years, and he played until he was 50,” said Dispaltro. “There’s still life for us, even past 40.”
The fluidity of boccia takes less of a physical toll than his previous careers in wheelchair rugby and tennis. For him, it’s about mind games.
He goes out to compete stone-faced after whipping balls at his coach as hard as he can in front of his competitors.
“You want to have that kind of edge going into the games, and so far it’s paid off beautifully for me.”
The Canadian Paralympic Committee selected Dispaltro for his fierce competitive side, combined with his role mentoring young athletes.
“He has proved himself as a role model both within his community and while excelling on the international stage” said spokesman Martin Richard.
Dispaltro is the world champion in his BC4 classification. He hopes to win gold in these Games after finishing with a silver in the singles competition at the 2011 Guadalajara Parapan Ams and bronze in doubles at the London 2012 Paralympics.
“I always like to encourage competition and I can’t wait for the Games to start. I can’t wait to face the Brazilians. I can’t wait to face my teammates. And, for sure, for me I want that gold.”
Canada will field 216 athletes at the Games, the largest in the country’s parasports history.
The team hopes for top three finish, said chef de mission Elisabeth Walker-Young.
“That is our goal and there is no question about it,” she said. “We are a legacy country. We used to be leaders in the Paralympic nations. Canadian Paralympic’s goal is to become leaders once again in the Paralympic movement.”
Dispaltro, who lives in St-Jérôme, Que., credits his disease for his long sports career, starting with wheelchair rugby in 1993.
“The great thing about me is I’ve got a degenerative disability. A lot of people are going to say, ‘Oh that’s terrible.’ But for me it’s been an incredible opportunity to go do three completely different sports,” he said.
“It’s been a fantastic odyssey and to land up here right now to be the flag-bearer for Team Canada. It’s insane. It’s great.”
The opening ceremonies take place Friday at the York athletics stadium. The first day of competition is Saturday, and the Games end a week later on Aug. 15.