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A new conversation for para-sport

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Before Sam Unrau really learned how to play, before someone showed him how a wheelchair or a sled could speed through a game, there were always the sidelines.

The sidelines, and the scorekeeper's sheet. All the ways well-meaning instructors try to find a way to include kids with disabilities in physical activity. The sidelines can be lonely, though, for a kid trying to figure out how he can fit in.

"Often, we're kind of singled out," Unrau said, over brunch at a sunny downtown café. "I learned more about refereeing than how to play sports, in school."

Then sport came into his life, sports that met him at his ability instead of leaving him on the side, and everything changed.

Today, Unrau is 24 years old, a business student at the University of Winnipeg. He was born with spina bifida and cannot use his legs. He was about nine years old when his parents enrolled him in a Manitoba Wheelchair Sport Association kids' program, and he got a chance to really play: wheelchair basketball, then wheelchair tennis. Sledge hockey would come later, and field pursuits.

After playing, Unrau and other kids would swap tips on how to play, on how to cope, on how to move through a world that isn't often designed with them in mind. They still do, today.

"(Sport) exposed me to some of the potentials that I have," Unrau said. "There was a period of time I didn't have sport in my life, and I actually went into a depression. I came out of it once sport came back into my life."

It wouldn't be long before Unrau learned just how fragile sport for athletes with disabilities can be in this province. How easily it can slip away.

In 2007, Unrau was invited to join Manitoba's wheelchair tennis team at the Western Canada Summer Games. Four years later, he got the call again, travelling out to Kamloops to wear the bison on his back. In both cases, when the Games ended, the opportunity to train and compete in wheelchair tennis did too.

It wasn't the first time Unrau had seen one of his sports programs fizzle out when there weren't medals on the line.

"That's where I really got frustrated," he said. "Suddenly, I wasn't an athlete anymore. I was like a for-hire agent. And I really didn't want that kind of system for disabled athletes."

That's about when Unrau started wondering: What if there was a better way?

Flash forward to a Thursday afternoon in early May, when about 15 people met at Sport Manitoba's office in a rehabilitated Pacific Avenue warehouse just to toss around ideas.

It was a robust turnout, they thought. In the room was sort of a para-sport who's who, some of the biggest boosters in the province. Tireless sledge-hockey organizer Bill Muloin was there, and Niverville's wheelchair-rugby Paralympian Jared Funk. There were reps from Sail Manitoba and the Manitoba Tennis Association. One passionate parent turned out, looking to help shape opportunities for their child.

Although they all hail from Manitoba's small para-sport community, many had never met.

"That's when we realized, 'Okay, there's a reason we have to make a connection here,' " said Janet McMahon, who helped organize the meeting.

In some ways, the moment was a long time in coming. For years, para-sport in Manitoba has been guided by a patchwork of organizations, and this system hasn't always run smoothly. While some provinces, including Ontario, have an umbrella organization to tend to para-sport, in Manitoba the responsibility for many sports for people with disabilities was integrated into existing provincial sport organizations.

Some, such as the Manitoba Wheelchair Sport Association -- which oversees rugby, basketball and kids' camps -- or the Manitoba Cerebral Palsy Sport Association are specialized for the task. Other sports, such as wheelchair tennis, wheelchair curling and adapted rowing, fall under the domain of their able-bodied counterpart organizations.

Each year, Sport Manitoba funds the para-sport-specific organizations to the tune of about $150,000 to support work with about 200 athletes. There are more out there, woven through the program patchwork. Some of these athletes will go on to become international names, following in the footsteps of other Manitobans such as blind swimmer Kirby Cote, a seven-time Paralympic medallist, and world-record-holding high jumper Arnold Boldt.

Still, many observers across para-sport in Manitoba have long suspected if the foundations of para-sport were more consistent, there could be many more.

"It's created a bit of a minefield in terms of a funding piece for us," McMahon said. "Who's identifying these athletes? Who's working with them? Some of those foundational systematic things don't exist in some of these places now."

The status quo can be haphazard. Often, as Unrau learned, teams and funding pop up when there's a showcase or a competition. Then the event passes, and the sport falls away, lost in the shuffle without a clear development model. Some sports languish for years -- Unrau has been working to establish a paralympic track and field program out of the University of Manitoba, in a province that hasn't seen many consistent opportunities for that.

It's hard to find qualified coaches, for many sports. Sometimes harder still to find potential athletes to bring them into the mix. Often, just one or two people are keeping a sport program going -- and if they move on, things get shaky. Sometimes they collapse.

Bill Johnson knows all about that. "Unfortunately, I've always felt that Manitoba is a little bit behind everybody else," said Johnson, a Winnipegger and the head coach of the national women's wheelchair basketball team. "I don't know what to attribute that to directly. I think it could be just that we don't value para-sport as much in this province as other places do."

Wheelchair basketball has long been Johnson's passion. When he was a kid, his brother Joey suffered a hip disability. They'd always tumbled together, and when Joey started playing wheelchair basketball, his siblings followed. Joey Johnson went on to become a longtime member of the national Paralympic team. And Bill? Today, he said, he is one of two Manitobans certified to coach a team at the Canada Games level. The other is his sister.

Along with other key champions, Johnson worked hard to boost the sport. But when he stepped away from the Manitoba level to focus on his national coaching duties, he saw the program slip back.

"All it takes is one or two key people to move on... and that killed wheelchair basketball in this province," he said, chatting after guiding his team through an exhibition tilt against Team Germany at the U of M.

"The program dropped from 30 people, down to 15 people, down to seven. In the last couple of years, there hasn't been any wheelchair basketball in this province at all. Now, they're actually working really hard to rebuild it. I've been helping a group of young coaches. I went out with them the other night. There was probably 15 young athletes. It was fantastic, good to see."

It's that part, locating athletes and giving them the space to play, that can pose the biggest challenge. Of all the para-sports in Manitoba, sledge hockey has the biggest participation, with 72 athletes competing last year. Its visibility, no doubt, is boosted by regular Hockey Canada campaigns. Still, a sledge-hockey coach once recruited a player in a parking lot. Other organizations rely on word-of-mouth, on incomplete lists or referrals from physical therapists.

So the question is, would an umbrella organization -- like those elsewhere in Canada -- provide a more robust home for para-sport?

Unrau thinks so. A few years ago he drafted a short paper calling on Sport Manitoba to explore the creation of an umbrella organization. That would spur a discussion that ultimately led to the meeting at Sport Manitoba earlier this month. If an umbrella organization existed, Unrau mused, that would offer para-sport a central database of interested participants, one single entry point to the para-athletic system.

"Then it's easier to get the message out," he said. "It can be, 'Hey, a sailing program has these new boats; they're looking for people,' instead of having to reach out to all these individual PSOs. Or let's say somebody tries out for sledge hockey. Maybe they don't have enough trunk (movement) to do sledge hockey. Well, then somebody from that organization could say there's also these other sports maybe they're a bit more accommodating."

There are risks to an umbrella model, though, in that it would have to be designed to protect the smaller sports.

"I don't know if that is the solution to our problems," said Johnson, who has seen a variety of approaches in his travels across Canada. "Sports become lost in a shuffle. I'm not worried about my own sport, since wheelchair basketball tends to be one of the ones that dominates the landscape. It's the other ones, the smaller sports that tend to get lost."

So first things first, then. The ideas that came out of that first Sport Manitoba para-sport meeting were simple, attainable. The participants enlisted Sport Manitoba to invest in fresh communications to help celebrate para-sport. A newsletter, perhaps, something McMahon said her organization would be pleased and well-positioned to support. They also decided to convene an informal committee to connect the disparate sports and keep the conversation rolling.

For kids out there searching for a place to play, that's a good start: a renewed push to create a province where sport is for everybody and celebrated for all. Not just in occasional inspiration stories, Unrau said, but celebrated for their achievements on their own.

"Persons with disabilities are a very marginalized group within our society," Unrau said. "At the end of the day, it's about changing attitudes in society. Sport has a really great bridge to show the potential of persons with disabilities, and as we try to move to a more inclusive society, that's going to be a really huge part in ensuring an active lifestyle."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 C4


Updated on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 10:35 AM CDT: clarifies headline

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