QUEBEC CITY – A warrior on the wheelchair rugby court, Fabien Lavoie unexpectedly gets emotional when discussion turns to his childhood. There are some tough memories, capped by an accident that would then require him to use a wheelchair.
Lavoie, who announced his retirement after 20+ years as one of Canada’s top players on the national team in December, was born in Moonbeam, Ont., a small Franco-Ontarian community along Highway 11 between North Bay and Kapuskasing.
His family left for Quebec City when he was six years old, but they often returned for various celebrations with relatives. Moonbeam is known for its roadside flying saucer, a tongue in cheek reference to pioneers who allegedly witnessed flashing lights falling from the sky.
‘’I still have a lot of family there,’’ Lavoie said. ‘’We spent Christmases and summer vacations in Moonbeam. Lots of great memories of Northen Ontario.’’
Lavoie gets particularly choked up when talk turns to his grandfather Stanislav Lavoie. He was Mayor of Moonbeam from 1959 to 1972 and oversaw the installation of the city’s first sewage system completed in 1965.
‘’My grandfather was a leader,” said Lavoie, 42. ‘’He was an example for everybody. He passed away many years ago but every time I think of him it brings back a lot of things.’’
As his opponents found out on the wheelchair rugby court, Lavoie is a tough customer. He described himself as a ‘’décrocheur’’ a French term for dropout, in his teenage years. He played some baseball, but his parents didn’t have the money to put him in hockey.
‘’I was very angry when I was young and I didn’t have stability,’’ he recalled.
At age 17 (in 1998), he was kicked out of high school and went to work in Sept-Îles for the summer. That’s where a tractor fell on him, ‘’pulverizing’’ his C7 cervical.
Lavoie ended up at a Québec City rehab centre (Institut de Réadaptation en Déficience physique de Québec). That's where he met Benoit Labrecque, the coach of the Quebec City team at that time.
‘’He told me I had great potential and since I always was a fast, athletic kid and loved contact sport I quickly caught the rugby fever. Wheelchair rugby and the people around it was the best thing that could have happened to me post injury.
‘’I always wanted to be an athlete. I don’t know how many times I asked my father to play hockey.’’
What developed was an incredible career as a high performance athlete. Lavoie went on to compete at five Paralympic Games (2004-2020) earning two silver medals and a bronze at his first three appearances. He also added medals at the 2006 and 2014 world championships. Another big highlight was gold at the 2015 Parapan American Games.
In addition, he played many years in U.S. leagues, either billeting with teammate families or sharing apartments with bachelor teammates. His stops included Seattle, Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia. Those years helped him develop new skills on the court which made him one of the most versatile players in the sport. Off the court his English greatly improved as well.
‘’Sometimes you would get your own room, other times you were on the couch,’’ he said. ‘’It didn’t matter to me; it was all about the experience. I was young and single. With those leagues, the wheelchair rugby season never ended.’’
Lavoie also lived in Vancouver and that’s where he would meet his life partner. She already had two children from a previous relationship and together they added two more. They are currently aged 1, 3, 9 and 10.
Last year, Lavoie was scheduled for back surgery when doctors discovered an issue with his heart during an examination. He underwent open heart surgery in the summer which was necessary to follow up with the back surgery in November.
He is still in recovery mode but has started a new chapter in his incredible life. He plans to stay involved in wheelchair rugby in some capacity but for now his young family is the top priority. He also recently started a new job.
‘’In my mind I was going to Paris (2024 Games) but don’t have the clearance to play so I had to make a move in order to help provide for my family,’’ said Lavoie. ‘’I had no choice.’’
Canada’s wheelchair rugby head coach Patrick Côté says the team has ‘’lost a warrior.’’
“Fab was always going to bring some fight and energy with him,’’ said Côté. ‘’We knew what we were going to get. That would raise the team up. Beyond anything, I always really appreciated his authenticity.
‘’That quality will definitely serve him in whatever comes next.
‘’You got this Fab!”