TORONTO – Danielle Ellis, the captain of Canada’s national women’s sitting volleyball team, will never forget her emotions when she attended the first ever national team training camp for the sport in 2008.
Ellis, who lost half her right leg due to cancer as an infant, was a talented standing player through high school and didn’t know about the existence of Para sport. In 2008, Volleyball Canada announced the inception of women’s sitting volleyball to its programs.
That year, Ellis attended the sport’s first ever national team camp.
“It was crazy,” said the 31-year-old from Langley, B.C. “I knew nothing about the sport, I had never seen it played before. As someone who only played able-bodied sport growing up, I was a little hesitant.
“I was asking myself why I need to change.”
What Ellis discovered was a “super fun” sport that was fast paced. She was also intrigued by being involved in something new, which included challenges such as the importance of using your hands both for court movement and hitting and passing the ball.
Team Canada struggled in those early years, and it fell short of qualifying for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. It was then that Ellis made a difficult decision to step back from the sport. She would return in 2016.
“It was hard for me [to not qualify for the Games],” she said. “I’d been playing for four years, I was really young. I never knew I would be an athlete. When I joined in 2008, it was a pretty big change for me, and I was going through some mental hardships.”
In 2015, the Canadian women earned their first major achievement winning the bronze medal at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto to clinch a berth for Rio 2016. With a fresh new outlook, Ellis rejoined the Canadian team for its march to the Games where it placed seventh.
Ellis credits current national team coach and former professional player Nicole Ban for elevating the play of the Canadian team. Named head coach in 2014, it has been a steady rise ever since with Ban at the helm. That includes a fourth at Tokyo 2020 and a silver medal at the 2022 World Championships.
“She works so hard,” said Ellis about her coach. “She is bringing the sport into the future. She doesn’t use strategies that have worked for other teams. Her training is geared towards our team and what is going to make us better.”
At last year’s worlds in Sarajevo, Canada lost in the final in the maximum five sets 3-2 to Brazil. The medal was historic for Canada but at the same time being so close to the grand prize left the team hungry for more.
“It was very emotional for us at worlds,” said Ellis, the tournament MVP at the 2020 Paralympic qualifier held in Halifax. “You work so hard and so long for a medal. But the silver was hard to take. As an athlete all you really want is the gold, that’s what you strive for every day. It has made us stronger, and we are working harder than ever for Paris.”
In 2019, Ellis was named captain of the Canadian national team. Through the pandemic and with national players scattered across the country, Ellis is a unifying link to a team which is filled with several veterans. There are 13 returnees from the worlds team and 10 of those were on the 2020 Paralympic Games team.
“It’s amazing to have the confidence of the other players,” she said. “There were moments where I asked myself ‘am I really this kind of material’.
“I just told myself I’m here for a reason and they picked me for a reason.”