By: Keegan Matheson
Canadian Paralympic Media Consortium
Sept. 17, 2016 – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - The game of wheelchair basketball has come a long way since Tracey Ferguson won her first of three consecutive gold medals at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona.
Both of Canada’s national teams have enjoyed a prolonged period of dominance in their sport, but the rapid growth of wheelchair basketball internationally has made it more difficult for the Canadians to reach the podium with the ease they once did. On Friday, Ferguson and the Canadian women defeated China 63-52 to earn a fifth-place finish in Rio.
“As much as it’s disappointing when you lose,” Ferguson said, “you want that challenge every game and I’m really proud of the way the international game has gone.”
Canada has now finished either fifth or sixth in the past three Paralympics dating back to 2008 in Beijing. Head coach Bill Johnson recognizes that the competition has never been stronger, but only a thin margin has separated the Canadians from their medal shots.
“The pool is much deeper on the women’s side than it has been,” Johnson said after Friday’s win. “This is the second Paralympics in a row where we’ve actually finished tied for first in our pool and gotten the bad draw in the quarter-finals. I’m not upset with how we played overall, we had a couple spurts of bad play and that cost us. Next time we just need to control our own destiny and not get ourselves involved in these tie-breakers.”
Following these Games, some of Canada’s roster will disperse to other playing commitments. Ferguson is headed to Trier, Germany to play professionally while others will be playing at the college level in the United States. After a period of semi-centralization back in Toronto with some the remaining athletes the national team will be together again in late October, but their next official competition is expected to be a friendly tournament next summer.
Sharing in the past year of training up to the Rio Paralympics has produced an incredibly tight-knit group, though, and one that will leave Ferguson with fond memories of her seventh Paralympics despite missing the podium.
“It’s definitely not the outcome we were hoping for,” Ferguson said, “but I think that the way the team played together and the group of players that we have on this team will make this an incredibly special moment for me.”
Time and again at these Games, members of the women’s national team turned to their motto: “stay family”. In the end, coach Johnson credits this with the development of his team in the last four years and the growth they will target moving forward towards Tokyo, Japan in 2020.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity together with the core of this group,” Johnson said. “These kinds of things help to galvanize the group and bring us together. We played the same fifth-sixth game in London and we lost to China in a one-point game, there were some valuable lessons learned and I think that our veterans helped carry us through today because of that.”