When Olivia Meier started badminton lessons at the age of eight, the sport didn't have any Canadian para-athletes for her to look up to.
Luckily for the next wave of para-badminton athletes in the country, they can aspire to be the next Meier.
Canada trails a bit in the world of para-badminton. It took until 2016, when Meier was 16, for Badminton Canada to first hold a national competition for para-competitors. Fortunately, times continue to change for the better. This year's Yonex Canadian National Badminton Championships, which is being hosted in Winnipeg at Prairie Badminton, is the first time able-bodied and para-athletes will compete at the same time.
Meier, now 20, is coming off an incredible year where she won a silver medal in women's singles and gold in mixed doubles at the 2019 Para Pan Am Games in Peru. The Winnipegger also competed in Badminton World Federation events in Ireland, Switzerland and Tokyo. But when Meier began playing, she never envisioned finding herself among the world's best.
"I didn't know what kind of competition there was. I never thought I could be calling myself one of the best players in the world," said Meier, prior to Thursday's slate of games.
The blending of the events this week marks a significant shift in the right direction for the sport; it's especially important now since badminton will be featured for the first time at this summer's Paralympics in Tokyo. However, for Meier, she'd like to see advancements progress further. She is one of only two female para-badminton athletes in Canada who compete in the SL4 classification (lower limb impairment). The other participant didn't make the trip to Winnipeg for nationals, forcing Meier to compete against males.
"I don't really mind playing a whole bunch of guys," said Meier, who had a stroke when she was a baby, which has effected her ability to use the right-side of her body. "It tests to see where I am and how I can compete with that category and how they can push me. (But) I hope one day we can form a good group of girls that I can play against."
Meier is currently ranked No. 11 in the world in women's singles and No. 12 in mixed doubles with her partner Pascal Lapointe, who hails from Montreal. Meier also has several junior provincial titles against able-bodied competition on her résumé.
"She's a special talent, really," said Frank Gaudet, a Regina native who's been involved with the Canadian para-badminton program since its inception in 2016.
"She's played able-bodied before so badminton is not new. Para was new to her a couple years ago, but now she's coming into her own as a para-athlete. A very good badminton player... She deserves to be where she is. It doesn't matter if there was two or 10 players (in her classification). She deserves to be where she is and she'd be there if there were 10 or more players."
On Wednesday night, Meier was named Canada's para-badminton player of the year. The medals and accolades are nice, but what the sport has done for Meier's confidence means even more. Growing up with a disability that hampered her fine motor skills wasn't easy, and it still isn't. But Meier is in a better place today and she said badminton has a lot to do with that.
"It used to bug me a lot more," she said.
"I didn't know how accepting people would be. Sometimes, I would even try to hide it and mask it. But now, I'm not afraid to say that I am a para-athlete. People are really accepting and open. It's great to represent my country."
Meier hopes she can continue to represent Canada, and she's hoping to do it on the biggest stage — the Paralympics. In order to qualify for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Meier needs to crack the top seven in the world rankings in singles or mixed doubles. The University of Manitoba business student who trains at the Winnipeg Winter Club will have a chance to move up in the rankings in the coming weeks as she will be heading to Brazil and Peru for tournaments. If Meier can't grab a spot for this year's Paralympics, she's confident she'll get there in 2024 when the Games are held in Paris.
"It would be a dream," Meier said. "It's just unbelievable. I never thought I'd ever get the chance. If I do get that chance, it would just be amazing to represent and be there."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.