Once a year, Dylan Sparks, 17, and his mom Tracey Rice, 39, review their memory jar.
They reminisce over newspaper clippings, personal bests at the gym and “things that were out of the norm for us,” Rice explains.
But they never imagined a scrap of paper scrawled with “Off to Toronto we go!” would wind up in the jar this year.
The mother-son team is in town as a powerlifting athlete-coach duo at the Parapan Am Games on Sunday, an “out of the norm” for them and the country.
Both are new to the sport — Sparks started lifting in 2014 and Rice took on the role of coach just months ago.
“I didn’t know I would get to this point this fast,” Sparks said ahead of this weekend’s competition. “Before last year I didn’t really hear of the Pan Am Games or anything like that.”
It’s no surprise Sparks hadn’t considered the Parapan Ams an option, since Canada doesn’t rank on the world stage for para-powerlifiting. The Canadian record lift in Sparks’ 59-kilogram weight class is 70 kilograms.
The record-holder is Sparks.
“It’s been kind of success after success for him, because there’s no one that he’s up against at this point,” Rice said. “So every time he sets a new weight on that bar he’s actually just going against himself, his previous best self.”
Sparks will attempt to break his previous best on his first lift with a 72.5-kg attempt on Sunday.
Cuba’s Cesar Rubio won gold in the 48-56 kg class at the 2011 Guadalajara Parapans with a 169.96-kg lift. Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia topped the medal count. Canada did not compete.
Knowing gold is a long-shot, Sparks comes into these Games seeking a different colour: white, the colour of the lights the judges use to evaluate technique. A white light means a technically perfect lift.
“He wants three white lights,” Rice said.
Para-powerlifting’s relative obscurity in Canada translates to scant funding. Rice pays for training out of pocket, with some support from the community.
“It’s a lot of letter writing and a lot of advocating,” she said. “No one knows the sport even exists for him.”
Sparks didn’t know the sport existed until he started weight training to help with his wheelchair basketball career.
He needed it, after playing on a team with grown men.
“For a while I don’t think there was anyone under 25, 30,” Sparks said. “This was before I was in my teens.”
Living in Grand Prairie, Alta., a town of 55,000, finding a team of teens to play alongside Sparks was a challenge. Now finding the right equipment and mentors for his lifting career is the hard part.
That’s why Rice has had to step up for her son as a coach after her son’s previous coach failed to match the family’s dedication.
Rice is no stranger to the weight room. She started training 10 years ago, taking up bodybuilding and fitness competitions in 2007.
Sparks was her inspiration, and the reason she found time between finishing her nursing degree, working part-time as a server and raising her son as a newly single mom.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Good Lord this kid’s going to get big. He’s going to be a man. How am I going to lift him?’ ”
She tries to keep her roles separate, but sometimes being a mother helps with being a coach, she said.
“I think he’s got that little bit of fear in me still . . . he still does what I tell him to do.”
But it’s not the role she’d prefer.
“I want to be the mom as spectator — crying, anxious in the audience, cheering him on,” she said. “It forces me to keep it together.