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Sunday, July 16, 2000
Wheelchair rugby athlete Willsie pumping for Paralympics

By TANYA MARISSEN -- London Free Press

If you wander around the maze-like corridors of Parkwood Hospital long enough, you just might find the physiotherapy workout room.

And if you find the workout room, you'll undoubtedly bump into David Willsie.

Willsie is training for the Paralympic Games this fall and if the blaring metal music and clanging barbells in the gym don't distract him from his training, nothing will.

His sport? Wheelchair rugby.

The London-area athlete has been focused on the Games for months.

Willsie heads to Parkwood four times a week to pump iron. He does 10 to 15 kilometres of road racing every day. He's travelling to Montreal for a training camp just days before his Aug. 19 wedding.

Willsie is one of 12 members of Canada's wheelchair rugby team who will compete in the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games in October.

It's the first time wheelchair rugby will be a medal sport.

"We have a pretty good team this year," Willsie says. "We have a great chance to win at the Olympics."

Willsie, 32, was hurt five years ago when he tripped during a hockey game and crashed into the boards, breaking his neck.

Since 1995, he has been in a wheelchair, able to move his upper body and arms.

That makes him a perfect candidate for playing wheelchair rugby.

Willsie was first introduced to wheelchair rugby when Harry deBoer and John Szintai, two members of the London Annihilators, a local wheelchair rugby team, visited him at Parkwood just weeks after his accident.

They encouraged him to join the team and Willsie was so good at the sport he went on to make the Ontario and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams.

"David is made for the game," deBoer says. "He has very good game sense and he's really sports-minded."

At the wheelchair rugby Canadian championships in May, Willsie was voted the tournament's most valuable player.

The award, chosen by all the athletes and coaches, took Willsie by surprise.

"I was shocked," Willsie says. "There were other really good players out there. I'm just a 2.0."

Wheelchair rugby athletes are rated from 0.5 to 3.5. Doctors assess each player before every tournament. A 0.5 player may have little upper body mobility, while a 3.5 may have a lot of mobility as well as hand, finger and arm movement.

Wheelchair rugby regulations only allow four players, with a total of eight points, on the court at all times.

The game is played on a basketball court with a specially designed ball the players have to carry over the opposing team's end line.

"It's a lot like hockey," Willsie says. "There's a lot of contact. You have to keep your head up and get the ball to the open man."

Willsie describes his position as a "jack of all trades." Because he does not possess fine finger mobility, he isn't the primary ball carrier on the team but he blocks, catches and goes to the open holes.

The Ontario team won silver at the recent national championships. Willsie expects the Canadian team to do just as well at the Paralympics.

"We have a good shot at gold," he says. "But the Americans are definitely better than us."

DeBoer, coach of the Annihilators and the Ontario provincial team, suspects Canada will have a tough time in Australia.

"Canada will be in the top four countries, for sure," he says. "But Australia and New Zealand will definitely give them a workout."

There are eight international teams competing in wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics.

Canada has to beat the United Kingdom, Germany and New Zealand before even meeting the U.S. in semifinal competition.

For Willsie, the Paralympics are a family affair. His mom, dad, aunt, uncle and new bride will accompany him to Sydney. They'll be sharing a condominium while Willsie stays in the Athletes Village.

After the Games, Willsie will return to his day job, working at the family lumber business in Dorchester.

He plans to keep playing for the Annihilators and has started recruiting friends from Parkwood Hospital to join the team.

According to Willsie, you can keep playing wheelchair rugby until you're 45.

That's fine by him, because he plans to represent Canada in wheelchair rugby in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games.

WHEELCHAIR WENT UP, CAME DOWN TOTALLED

Wheelchair rugby is a lot like conventional rugby. Both are rough on the players and their equipment.

Londoner Dave Willsie, a member of Canada's national wheelchair rugby team, has sores on his back from his custom-made rugby wheelchair to prove it.

The seat is lower, the wheel base is wider, and there are crash bars all around the chair to stop it from tipping over.

"These things are made for abuse," Willsie says.

Unfortunately, rugby wheelchairs can't always handle the kind of abuse Air Canada metes out.

Willsie's chair was totalled by the airline on a return flight from his most recent training camp in Vancouver.

Air Canada has promised to quickly replace the $3,000 wheelchair in time for the next Paralympic training camp in August.
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