08/15/2015 10:00 EDT | Updated 08/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Canada's Wheelchair Rugby Team Clinches Rio Paralympics Spot With Victory Over U.S.

Toronto marked the Parapan American debut of the hard-hitting sport formerly named "Murderball."


TORONTO — Zak Madell scored 34 goals to lift Canada to a thrilling 57-54 gold-medal victory at the Parapan American Games on Friday, and into the Rio Paralympics.

The 21-year-old from Okotoks, Alta., was virtually unstoppable with his strength and speed, and when he forced an American turnover with about 30 seconds to play, the jam-packed crowd at the Hershey Centre rose to its feet in a noisy standing ovation.

The victory clinched Canada's spot in next summer's Rio Paralympics.

Toronto marked the Parapan American debut of the hard-hitting sport formerly named "Murderball," and made famous by the Oscar-nominated documentary by the same name.

The 2005 documentary chronicled the rivalry between the Americans and Canada, and it's clear there is no love lost between the two squads, who had played to double overtime two nights earlier in the preliminary round. The U.S. won that battle, 60-59.

The spokes are covered by what look like hub caps on a demolition derby car; the dozens of dents are points of pride with the players. Broken wheels are changed with NASCAR-like speed. The floor's wooden surface is a web of black rubber skid marks.

Much like rugby, a player scores a goal when his front wheels pass the end line. Contact is allowed in the virtually-anything-goes game that also features blocking and stealing. The hits were hard and loud Friday. Time and again players were tipped over entirely.

Canada trailed the U.S. for the first two quarters, and was down 30-26 at halftime. Madell scored to tied the game at 30-30 early in the third quarter, and the U.S. battled virtually point for point the rest of the way.

Like wheelchair basketball, players are ranked according to impairment — from 0.5 to 3.5 — the higher the number the greater mobility the player has. The total number on the floor at one time can't be higher than eight.

Madell also starred at the 2012 London Paralympics, leading Canada in scoring in its silver-medal performance.

He played basketball, volleyball and lacrosse as a boy, excelling at lacrosse because he was a strong runner and liked the contact.

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.

He initially tried sledge hockey, but had to duct tape the stick to his hand. Since joining wheelchair rugby, he's become one of the world's best players. 

The sports has its roots in Winnipeg, when a group of quadriplegic athletes were looking for an alternative to wheelchair basketball. It debuted at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta as a demonstration sport, and then was added as a medal sport four years later in Sydney.


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