SPORTS

Madell rising star in wheelchair rugby, which will make its Parapan Am debut

04/29/2015 05:49 EDT | Updated 08/05/2015 09:59 EDT
TORONTO - The wheels on Zak Madell's rugby chair are battle-scarred with dents and divots. Each one is a point of pride.

The 21-year-old from Okotoks, Alta., plays wheelchair rugby, a hard-hitting sport formerly known as "murderball," and made famous by the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name.

"This chair is only about a year old, it looks like it's been through a war zone or two. It takes quite a beating," Madell said of his specialized rugby chair. The spokes are covered with what look like hub caps on a demolition derby car.

"As soon as you see a new chair out there you're kind of a target, because it's not a rugby chair if you don't have scratches on there. You see a nice flat wheel and you go out there and try to mark it up right away."

Wheelchair rugby will make its Parapan Am Games this summer in Toronto, and Madell helped show off his sport at Wednesday's celebration to mark the 100-day countdown.

He led the Canadian team to silver at the 2012 London Paralympics, scoring a team-high 68 goals, despite just two years of experience playing the sport.

Madell was all about sports as a kid. He played basketball and volleyball and — because he was a strong runner and loved the contact — excelled at lacrosse.

When he was 10, he contracted a staph infection and doctors had to amputate both his legs and fingers on both hands. He was in hospital for the better part of six months then and in and out for rehabilitation for a year-and-a-half after that.

His mind was constantly thinking ahead to when he could play sports.

"I just always wanted to get back into it, my family was supportive of that. It was something we felt was a priority and it was a fun way to rebuild the body, and rehabilitate that way instead of going to physio and doing all the boring exercises," he said.

He tried sledge hockey at first, but had to duct tape his hands to the sticks. He switched to wheelchair basketball and eventually was recruited for wheelchair rugby where he's one of the sport's rising stars.

Sports, he said, have made a massive difference in his life.

"It's really an incredible experience being able to travel the world, play a sport that we love, making friends around the world, not many people get that opportunity," said Madell, who lives and trains in Toronto with his girlfriend Arinn Young, a member of Canada's women's wheelchair basketball team.

Murderball was invented in 1976 by five wheelchair athletes in Winnipeg. The 2005 documentary followed the U.S. team, chronicling its rivalry with Canada leading up to the 2004 Paralympics.

The game is played four-aside on a basketball court. Much like a try in rugby, a player scores a goal when his front two wheels cross the end line.

Madell's favourite part: "The contact. It's a good stress relief too, going out, smashing around."

A berth in the 2016 Rio Paralympics is on the line at this summer's Parapan Am Games. Win gold in Toronto and the Canadians book their spot for Rio. The U.S. should put up the biggest challenge. The Canadians defeated the U.S. in the semifinals at both the London Olympics, and last summer's world championships, losing to Australia in both finals.

Some 1,600 athletes will compete in the Parapan Am Games, Aug. 7 to 15.

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