Zak Madell is already accustomed to being the in the spotlight as the national wheelchair rugby team’s super scorer. So it was hardly surprising that the 21-year-old Okotoks, Alta., resident, was one of seven Canadians named as athletes to watch for 2016 by the International Paralympic Committee.
Many of the athletes named on the list have won multiple Paralympic and world titles and are set for further success later this year when Rio stages the Paralympic Games between 7-18 September.
“For me scoring is my job and that’s what’s expected,” said Madell, Canada’s flag bearer at the 2015 Parapan American Games Closing Ceremony this past summer in Toronto. “I’ve got three other players on the court out there fighting for me to get those opportunities. I think that’s why I look so relaxed out there, because I know my role.”
In 2015, Madell scored 34 points in Canada’s 57-54 victory over the U.S. at the Parapan Ams. A few weeks later, Madell and his teammates won the BT World Challenge in London, which put Canada No.1 in the world rankings for the first time in 13 years.
Canada, the U.S. and Australia are the three superpowers in the sport and are expected to battle for gold again in Rio.
The IPC’s other Canadians to watch are swimmers Benoit Huot of Montreal and Aurélie Rivard of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos of Dorval, Que., boccia star Marco Dispaltro of St-Jerome, Que., para-triathlete Stefan Daniel of Calgary and wheelchair basketball player Janet McLachlan of North Vancouver.
The 18-year-old Daniel is the reigning world champion in the men’s PT4 division after he placed first in Chicago this past fall to cap a great 2015. He also won international events in London and Edmonton and has earned medals at the last three worlds – bronze, silver and gold in succession. He is also the Canadian junior able-bodied champion.
Germany’s Martin Schulz has dominated the PT4 class for the past two years, winning every single triathlon race he competed in between June 2013 and September 2015, before being dethroned by Daniel in Chicago.
Lakatos has been collecting international medals in wheelchair racing for the past 10 years and he is not slowing down. He once again dominated at the IPC World Championships this past fall in Doha with three gold and a silver after winning triple gold at the Parapan Ams in Toronto. The thrilling rivalry between Lakatos and Huzhao Li of China was rekindled in Doha as the pair battled it out on the track once again; Lakatos came out on top, winning two out of their three encounters – the 100m and 800m, while 400m gold went to Huzhao. Lakatos safely retained 200m title as well.
At the Parapan Ams, McLachlan was a powerhouse for the Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball which won silver and qualified for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. She led Canada in points with an average 15.6 a game and was second in assists with 16. Germany, Australia and the Netherlands look challenge Canada for medal positions at the Paralympic Games in Rio.
Rivard was the big individual star for Canada at the Parapan Am Games with seven gold medals including a world record performance in the S10 100-m freestyle. Just a few weeks earlier in Glasgow, the 18-year-old earned her first world titles with victories in the 50-m freestyle and the 400-m freestyle. Young veteran Sophie Pascoe of New Zealand won three world titles at the IPC World Swimming Championships in Glasgow this past summer and is Rivard’s top opponent in most of the S10 events.
The best-known athlete from this Group of Seven is Huot, a 19-time Paralympic medallist over four Games, who enters 2016 as the man to beat in the S10 200-m individual medley. He holds the world record at the distance and is the defending Paralympic Games champion. One of his top rivals for gold in Rio is Andre Brasil of Brazil. He’s been in a heated rivalry with Huot for 10 years and is coming off a triple gold performance at the London 2012 Paralympics.
Dispaltro was Canada’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony in Toronto where he won the silver medal in the pairs event with Alison Levine and Caroline Vietnieks. He ended the 2014 season ranked number-one in the world and stands number-two heading into the 2016 season. Hong Kong’s Yuk Wing Leung moved into the number-one position. Leung is preparing for his fourth Paralympic Games in 2016.