Challenges and opportunities of dual sport participation

Canadian Paralympic Committee

November 02, 2022

Not many athletes can claim both summer and winter Paralympian status like Liam Hickey


By Caela Fenton, Sport Information Resource Centre

This blog is a part of a series created in collaboration with SIRC and the Paralympic Athlete Transfer Task Force, spotlighting the opportunities and challenges of Para athlete transfer and multi-sport participation.

Part 1: How “athlete transfer” is opening new avenues for development in Para sport

Part 2: Collaborative coaching is key to successful Para athlete transfer

Part 3: Push and pull: Paralympian Brianna Hennessy is stronger for her multi-sport participation

Not many athletes can claim both summer and winter Paralympian status. Liam Hickey of St. John’s, Newfoundland, is one of those rare athletes. He represented Canada at the 2016 Paralympics in wheelchair basketball and the 2018 and 2022 Paralympics in Para ice hockey.

Hickey, who was born without a femur in his right leg, grew up participating in numerous sports. But as he got older, sports that required extensive running proved a barrier.

“I couldn’t keep up with my friends as I got older,” Hickey says.

That is, until around age 10, when he was introduced to both wheelchair basketball and Para ice hockey. He already loved stand-up basketball and knew he liked ball hockey, but had never had the opportunity to try on ice.

From then on, he says, those sports just “stuck.”

As a dual sport athlete, Hickey played wheelchair basketball and Para ice hockey from youth through high school (he was in grade 12 during the lead up to Rio, and admits sheepishly to missing a fair bit of school). He started getting attention from the national development programs in both sports in his early teens, then progressed to the junior, and then national teams. Hickey was named Junior Athlete of the Year by Wheelchair Basketball Canada in 2015. He was recognized as Newfoundland and Labrador’s Junior Athlete of the Year in 2015 and 2016, going on to be named Male Athlete of the Year in 2017-2019.

After high school though, the financial reality of supporting himself while training at the national level in two sports was difficult. Hickey receives Sport Canada funding to support his training through the Athlete Assistance Program (AAP), as a “carded” athlete.

Sport Canada decides how many cards an individual National Sport Organization (NSO) receives, based on factors including team size and performance. Individual NSOs determine their own criteria for carding, which are then approved by Sport Canada. Carded senior athletes in all sports receive the same amount, $1765 per month.

AAP provides this financial assistance to offset some, but not all, living and training expenses. Tuition support is intended to help athletes obtain a post-secondary level education. The AAP is the only Sport Canada program that provides direct financial support to athletes.

Under the current rules, athletes can only be carded once per year, which means Hickey could not be carded by both Wheelchair Basketball Canada and Hockey Canada, even if he met both of their eligibility criteria.

“Carding was a barrier,” Hickey says, “I think it is doable to commit to two sports if you could receive double carding. But trying to balance two sports meant I had no time to work, let alone try to also balance school. I had to understand pretty quickly that the time just wasn’t there. I couldn’t dedicate my time solely to sport and not have a job.”

NSOs are aware that shifting sports comes with challenges and some are starting to implement accommodations for athlete transfers. For example, Cycling Canada has instituted a “Past Olympians and Paralympians” clause, which allows for an athlete who has previously represented Canada at the Olympics or Paralympics to be nominated for senior carding based on the recommendation of a national coach and performance data indicating they have podium potential.

However, accommodations like this, while useful for athletes transferring from one sport to another, cannot fully address situations like Hickey’s where an athlete wishes to pursue two sports simultaneously.

Ultimately, Hickey made the decision to prioritize hockey, spurred on in part by Canada’s loss to the USA in the gold medal game in PyeongChang in 2018. Furthermore, COVID-19 protocols in place for the most recent summer and winter Olympics and Paralympics, coupled with the compressed recovery time between the two Games  due to the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games, made dual participation in both virtually impossible.

The need to work alongside his training schedule also made Hickey wary of spreading himself too thin.

“I didn’t want to only be able to give 50% of my effort,” he says. “Playing at the highest level, you owe it to everyone to put your full effort into it. So that’s when the decision to choose one sport over another came naturally.”

Even still, that full transfer process took place over a couple years. Hickey credits coaching staff in both programs with supporting his decisions.

“I never got any pressure from either one to choose right away,” he says, “They gave me the time to figure it out and kept the door open for me.”

Hickey says he would definitely consider committing fully to both sports if he was financially able to do so.

“The hardest part of transferring [fully to Para ice hockey] was giving up another opportunity to represent my country,” Hickey says, “I had to come to the realization that at the next summer Paralympics, I probably wouldn’t be there, even though I love the sport.”

Hickey’s observations on the importance of supportive coaches, and the challenges of navigating the financial side of his sport career, are sentiments expressed by many Para athletes who have transferred sports or thought about it, as revealed by recent consultations with the athlete community. Like many of his peers, he is a strong advocate for multi-sport participation at all levels.

“I think playing multiple sports as long as you can is super beneficial. Not only do you develop athletically, but you also gain leadership skills and communication skills that provide different perspectives from different sports,” Hickey says.

For athletes considering transfer, Hickey advises transparency with everyone involved. For coaches or administrators facilitating or receiving a transfer, he says that open-mindedness and an eye to accommodation are key. For example, staff from both Wheelchair Basketball Canada and Hockey Canada made an effort to provide him with schedules as far in advance as possible so he could manage dual sport participation for several years.

While the current funding system still has a way to go to catch up with athletes such as Hickey, support from coaches and technical leaders can go a long way to support athletes who dream of pursuing excellence in more than one sport.

For now, Hickey is throwing his heart into hockey, with his childhood dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup transferred to dreams of a Paralympic gold medal.

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