The smell of burnt rubber filled the air as Canada’s wheelchair basketball teams practised Thursday.
The sport is fast-paced and can be incredibly rough — during practice, players toppled over in their chairs while battling for the ball. Famous and feared for their intense offence, the Canadian men and women’s teams are both pining for gold at one of the hottest tickets at the Parapan Am Games.
After winning the 2014 women’s world wheelchair basketball championship in Toronto, Canada is clearly the team to beat. The Canadians’ closest competitors, the U.S. and Mexico, placed fourth and 10th last year.
“It was great winning the 2014 world championships, but that’s over — now it’s 2015 and everyone’s equal again,” the team’s coach, Bill Johnson, said humbly during a heated practice Thursday at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.
“We’d like to come out of this with a gold medal.”
For Canada’s men, things won’t be as easy. After clinching a Paralympics gold in 2012, a slew of retirements weakened the once-dominant team, which didn’t even qualify for the world championships in 2014.
David Eng, the team’s co-captain, is also their most experienced player. The 38-year-old Montreal native has won two Paralympics golds, a Paralympics silver and a 2006 world championship. A mentor to the team’s new crop of athletes, he’s dismissive of their recent slump.
“We’re young . . . we’re really quick, really fast,” he said. “I’m predicting Canada and the United States in the finals.”
Plenty is riding on these Games.
As the sole qualifier for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, the top two men’s teams will head to Brazil while the women need to place in the top three.
The men will be facing stiff competition from strong American, Brazilian and Colombian teams.
Originally developed in the 1940s to rehabilitate American World War II veterans, wheelchair basketball made its international debut at the 1960 Paralympics Games in Rome.
Like the able-bodied version of the sport, wheelchair basketball is played on a standard-sized court with 10-foot hoops. The sport is open to athletes with physical disabilities that prevent them from running, jumping or pivoting.
The rules are similiar, with the main difference being that “travelling” occurs when an athlete touches their wheels more than twice without dribbling the ball. Unlike traditional basketball, athletes can also use their wheelchairs to prevent competitors from moving down the court.
Athletes are also given classifications between 1.0 and 4.5 depending on their level of physical impairment. A player who cannot bend or rotate their torso due to a spinal injury, for example, would be given a lower classification.
An athlete with normal torso movement would be classified on the higher end of the spectrum. To level the playing field, the combined classifications of athletes on the court cannot exceed 14.
Wheelchair basketball begins Saturday at Mattamy.
Canada’s women faceoff against Guatemala at 6:30 p.m.; the men face Venezuela at 8:45 p.m.
The gold medal games will be held Aug. 14 (women) and Aug. 15 (men).