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 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
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
"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
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
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
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.