SPORTS

Field of Play: A flag-bearer with staying power

08/05/2015 05:07 EDT | Updated 08/05/2016 05:59 EDT
The Parapan American Games about to unfold in Toronto and Southern Ontario will be the largest in history. Conservatively speaking, they will involve 1600 athletes from 28 countries competing in 15 disciplines.

The spectacle is bound to be an eye-opener for sports fans in this part of the country.

"The whole integration into the greater Toronto fabric is very important," said Gaetan Tardif, the President of the Canadian Paralympic Committee. "When people try Para Sport they inevitably remark on how tough it is but also how much fun it is. They end up wanting more of it."

Catherine Gosselin-Depres, the Executive Director of Sport for CPC, echoed Tardif's optimism while pointing out that what happens on the various fields of play over the course of the eight day event really matters going forward.

"There's a lot at stake," she stressed. "For the first time the Parapan Am's are direct qualifiers in every sport for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Rio. In many cases, you will have to win here just to get to Brazil."

High expectations for home team

The leaders of the 216 member home team are already trumpeting the intensity of the competition that lies ahead. It represents a distinct opportunity to showcase these athletes on familiar soil and to make an impact with Canadians of all ages.

"We want to be top three in the medal standings," said Canadian Chef de Mission Elisabeth Walker-Young. "But I admit my nervousness is for these athletes. I know how much they give up and how much they put in." Assistant Chef de Mission Stephanie Dixon had no such trepidation. "Our motto for these Games is pretty clear," she offered.

Embodying this confident attitude, some may call it swagger, is the Boccia player chosen as flag bearer for the opening ceremony.

A native of Montreal, Marco Dispaltro began his career as a wheelchair rugby player in 1993 and then took up wheelchair tennis only to find Boccia later in life. He won Paralympic bronze in doubles play at London 2012 with partner Josh Vander Vies.

"For sure I'll win that gold medal this time," Dispaltro declared. "When you talk about high performance athletes and what it takes...well... I've put in my 10,000 hours and then some. These are hard core athletes and rivals I'm dealing with."

Flag-bearer's spirit electric

At one point during the press conference where the Canadian flag was passed to Dispaltro by Josh Dueck, the sit-skier who carried it out of the closing ceremony at the Sochi 2014 Paralympics, a television reporter posed a direct question.

"Can you tell us how old you are sir?" she queried.

"Forty-eight," he replied. "My hero is Gordie Howe. Gordie played forever. You can think of me as the Gordie Howe of wheelchair sport."

Dispaltro has Muscular Dystrophy and as he ages he loses mobility. This has necessitated his sporting evolution. 

"The great thing about me is that I have a degenerative disease," he said disarmingly while prompting a chuckle from the large media gathering. "It's allowed me to try many sports and it's been a fantastic odyssey. My advice to young people will always be to try stuff. Don't be afraid. If you fall down then pick yourself back up."

When the formal announcements were finished the sizeable scrum hung on his every word.. He talked at great length about wanting to be difficult to play against, never giving in, and about his belief that this was the chance of a lifetime.

"It's in Canada," he said wide-eyed. "For me it's amazing and the chance to be the flag-bearer is absolutely insane."

Most of us left feeling we can't wait to see him play the game.

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