By Braydon Holmyard
Canadian Paralympic Media Consortium
Sept. 17, 2016 - David Willsie has worn many hats over the course of his 19-year career with the Canadian wheelchair rugby team.
Player, coach and business owner are probably what he is most known for, but what lies beneath the surface is his history of reaching out to others who are rehabilitating from spinal cord injuries.
Mike Whitehead, who is competing in Rio in his fourth Paralympic Games, was approached by Willsie in 1998 at Parkwood Rehabilitation Hospital in London, Ont. Willsie was going to show him rugby, and would not take no for an answer.
“On the way to my first practice, I fell out of my chair,” Whitehead recalled. “He said to me, ‘I’m not your mom, figure it out’. He went inside the gym and left me in the van on the floor. No word of a lie.”
It was a classic case of tough love and while it was hard for Whitehead to accept, it paid dividends in the end.
“I was like, this guy is going to bring me to some place I’ve never been and let me fall out of my chair?” The 40-year-old remembered this moment fondly. “But I earned it. I got in my chair, went in the gymnasium. There were 15 guys that had been in chairs between three and 23 years. Wheelchair rugby will sort you out quick after a catastrophic injury, and that’s what spinal cord rehab is all about.”
The resident of Dorcester, Ont. also had an impact on newer Canadian national player Cody Caldwell. They had met before Caldwell’s first tournament in London and Willsie was quick to integrate him into the group.
“Dave took me in under his wing,” Caldwell said. “We’re the same classification, so whether we’re on the same line or fighting for the playing time, we push each other to earn everything and that’s been huge in getting me here.”
Between running his family business, playing and coaching on the Ontario Thunder club team, and his full commitment to the Canadian national team, the 48-year-old still finds time to welcome newcomers to the sport that’s given him so much.
“I think we always do. We see somebody in the mall, see people here or there, it’s a big part of our deal,” Willsie said. “You’ve got to keep those club teams going, that’s what feeds this. The players keep me young, and hopefully I help them somehow too.”
Now in his fifth Paralympic Games, Willsie believes the welcoming culture and effort to recruit is engrained in Canadian wheelchair rugby.
“You find ways to meet on common ground whether it’s sports, music, or a couple cold ones. You just get to know the guy and tell them how many doors this can open,” Willsie said. “Not everybody is going to make the Paralympic team, but if you get stronger, it makes your everyday life better and you get your swag back. They did it for me and Cody’s going to do it when I’m gone. That’s what makes this sport so great.”