08/29/2012 12:38 EDT | Updated 10/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada's Paralympic teams in search of new recruits to keep pace with the world

LONDON - Going on the theory that the wider the base, the higher the top of the pyramid, Canada needs more people with a disability to get involved in sport.

Canada slipped from third in gold medals won at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Paralympics to seventh in 2008. The Canadian team's objective in 2012 to finish in the top eight.

Recruiting amputees and the visually impaired, as well people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy is a priority of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

The organization will launch a television commercial during the London Paralympics aimed at Canada's four million people with a disability.

"We need thousands more people with disabilities participating in sport to go up against China, Britain and the United States," says CPC executive director of sport Rob Needham.

Canadian team chef de mission Gaetan Tardif has pointed out that China draws from a pool of 40 million people with a disability, which is more than Canada's total population of 35 million.

For some of Canada's 145 Paralympians competing in London starting Thursday, their window into their sport was obvious. For others, it happened by chance.

Canada's flag-bearer Garett Hickling was still in rehabilitation following a fall that rendered him a quadriplegic when the B.C. wheelchair sports association visited him.

"They had me try various sports, track, tennis, basketball," he recalls. "I was playing basketball for a couple of years. A group of us playing basketball played road hockey together."

Duncan Campbell, one of the originators of wheelchair rugby, suggested Hickling try that sport.

"I went out, hit that first guy, knocked him out of his chair, fell in love with it and haven't looked back since," Hickling says.

Elisabeth Walker-Young, Canada's assistant chef de mission in London, didn't hear the word "Paralympic" until age 11.

Her parents found out from a newspaper that Toronto's Variety Village had an integrated swim program. Walker-Young, born with two shortened arms, and her twin sister who wasn't born with a disability, could enrol together.

Walker-Young went on to win six medals, including three gold, over four Paralympic Games. She's now on the CPC's development committee which provides equipment, programs and coaching mentorship.

"People hear about my four Paralympic Games and all the medals that I won and they say 'You must have always dreamed of being an Olympian or a Paralympian,'" she says. "No, because when I watched the 1988 Olympics, you didn't see people who looked different, people using wheelchairs or people with amputations or who walked with a little bit of a different gait.

"I found out by mistake and that's why I'm a part of this movement. I do all this work so people don't find out by mistake. I am confident in large part because of sport and I just think people in society with disabilities don't necessarily have an opportunity to feel that way."

The CPC is taking steps to make the intake of potential athletes less random, as well as widen avenues to Paralympic sport.

In a partnership with the Department of National Defence, the program Soldier On was established in 2007 to help soldiers injured in combat get into sport and go as far as they want in it.

There are no athletes on Canada's 2012 team from Soldier On. The program may have more impact at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, according to CPC chief executive officer Henry Storgaard.

Dominic Larocque of Quebec City helped Canada's sledge hockey team win bronze at this year's world championship. The forward lost his leg in an explosion in Afghanistan while serving with the Canadian Forces.

"What we are hoping for is because they're already physically fit, they're strong psychologically and they've probably had a sport background is that it may translate into a more accelerated process," Storgaard explained.

The CPC has hired a high-performance director in charge of recruitment. Using the Get Involved portal on the CPC website, the organization is gathering data to map where in Canada there are people with disabilities wanting to get into sport.

The most significant recruiting tool in the CPC's arsenal was the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver. Canada won 10 gold medals to finish third and won 19 medals overall.

"The biggest thing for me was the visibility it offered us," said boccia player Marco Dispaltro, who started out in wheelchair rugby. "The more visibility you have, the more people know about the sport and they'll seek it out."

"When you go to talk to people and say you're a disabled athlete, they know what you're talking about. Hopefully people back home will see these Games, be inspired by us and they'll go out there and do something."

Coaching is crucial, says Walker-Young. One hurdle is convincing the coach of an able-bodied program that it isn't a reach to incorporate athletes with a disability.

"I go in and help coaches realize it's not as scary as it seems to be," she said, adding that people in wheelchairs will often brave accessibility problems at a swimming pool if they know there is a coach there for them.

Even if the Paralympics aren't attainable, sport helps people suddenly without a limb or in a wheelchair recover their life, says Hickling.

"What I've noticed in wheelchair sport is the improvement of everybody's everyday life skills," he explained. "We have guys coming into our sport that have trouble transferring to chairs, getting in the bathtub and they just learn tricks of the trade from the other guys, things to make life easier. I've seen their lifestyles improve tremendously over the years."