Dennis keeps two dads close by
By TANYA MARISSEN -- London Free Press
Canadian athletes who make it to the Olympics have an unwritten tradition of getting small tattoos of the maple leaf somewhere on their bodies.
Swimmers usually have a small leaf subtly tattooed on their chests, right over their heart. Cyclists often have it done on their ankle.
Jeff Dennis, who heads to the Sydney Paralympics in October for wheelchair basketball, is following this tradition. But he has rejected the small, subtle approach.
On his right arm, his shooting arm, Dennis has a huge tattoo of a maple leaf shaped like a basketball.
When he made the wheelchair basketball Paralympic team in May, his dad, Verne, also got a tattoo of the maple leaf shaped like a basketball on his right shoulder, although it's quite a bit smaller than his son's.
And right under his Olympic tattoo, Dennis has another big tattoo, one that spans his bicep and reads "Felix," the name of his first father who passed away when he was nine years old.
"Now I have both of my dads on my shooting arm," Dennis says.
Sitting beside his dad on the front porch of the family home in Ingersoll, you'd never guess Dennis was a wheelchair athlete.
He'll stand up to shake your hand, ask if you'd like a drink, walk into the house and return minutes later, juggling two glasses of ice tea.
Dennis, 26, contracted polio when he was a child growing up in the Philippines. For four years, he was in and out of hospitals, receiving treatment after treatment, finally learning to walk when he was six years old.
"It wasn't easy," Dennis recalls. "Kids used to tease me and call me kangaroo at school because of the way I ran."
Dennis doesn't suffer from taunts and teasing any more. The only thing he currently struggles with is post-polio syndrome, a condition that comes years after an initial diagnosis of polio, when overworked muscles and nerves start to wear down after years of replacing damaged ones.
"Being a good athlete really helps me combat the tiredness," Dennis says.
It's hard to tell whether it's the post-polio syndrome or his workout schedule that makes him tired.
While completing a degree in graphic design at the University of Wisconsin, Dennis practises with the university's wheelchair basketball team six days a week, lifts weights three days a week, does aerobics twice a week and shoots 1,000 baskets a day.
"At least once a week during school I want to cry," Dennis says. "I say, 'I just can't do this anymore.' "
Good thing the Canadian national men's wheelchair coach is only four hours away.
Mike Frogley is the University of Illinois wheelchair basketball coach during the school year and head coach of Canada's Paralympic team.
Paul Bowes, a long-time London resident who has coached wheelchair basketball for 12 years, is assistant coach of the Paralympic team, head coach of the Ontario men's wheelchair basketball team and coach of the London Flyers, a local wheelchair basketball team.
"Wheelchair basketball is such an amazing sport and they're all amazing athletes," says Bowes, or Bowsey as his team nicknamed him.
"When you watch them play, the chairs disappear and all you see is these guys working hard and crashing into each other."
Fresh from a win at a pre-Paralympic tournament in Amsterdam earlier this summer, Bowes is confident Canada's team will do well at the Paralympics in October.
Canada's main competition will be the United States, which didn't compete in the recent Amsterdam tournament. The Americans defeated Canada easily in the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta.
Before meeting the U.S. in Sydney, Canada had an opportunity to play the Americans recently in another pre-Paralympic tournament.
Bowes calls the third annual Roosevelt Cup, played in Warm Springs, Ga., the "show before the show" and "the mini-Paralympics."
All of the best international Paralympic teams competed in Warm Springs and many families of wheelchair athletes who can't make the expensive trip to Sydney in October headed down to Georgia for the Roosevelt Cup.
And they were treated to a spell-binding show.
Canada defeated the U.S. 61-55 to to win the championship and gain a mental edge for Sydney. The Canadians had the U.S. breathing down their necks for most of the game.
Canada was down 32-28 at the half but came back in the dying minutes of the game. The capper came when Patrick Anderson blocked an attempted lay-up by an American player and then, with 17 seconds left, raced the ball to the other end and scored to give Canada a 59-55 lead.
This is the third year Canada has won the Roosevelt Cup, and the second time they've had to beat the U.S. to do it.
"Beating the U.S. was a big psychological barrier for us," Bowes says. "But we can't get over-confident now. It just means that we have to train twice as hard for the Paralympics."
And Dennis is doing just that. He returned to Illinois after the tournament to practise for a month before heading to Sydney. He continues to shoot 1,000 baskets a day.
"I love this basketball," Dennis says while tossing it up in the air. "I'm married to basketball. If I don't touch this ball for three days, I go into withdrawal."