MONTREAL (Sportcom) – You may remember Diane Roy, André Viger and Jacques Martin, all big Canadian stars in international Para sport. A major factor in their success was Jean Laroche, but it’s hard to believe that coach Laroche was initially not interested in working with Para athletes.
‘’When I was in university there was a course called Adapted Physical Education,’’ he said. ‘’Everyone took the course except me and another student. I told myself that I was never going to work with people with a disability.”
Just after graduating in the early 1980s, Laroche was in charge of the weight room at the Université de Sherbrooke when two athletes in wheelchairs showed up. One was on the verge of becoming one of the world’s best in Para athletics: André Viger.
‘’When I met him, I realized I could not treat that guy like a disabled person,’’ said Laroche who joined forces with Viger in 1987. ‘’He was an athlete mentally and motivationally. I immediately made the transition to Para athletics. He was already good. I didn’t really know him at the time but I knew his coach. Both thought weight training would be beneficial and that’s why André came to see me. I was at the right place at the right time.’’
At the time, Laroche was involved with athletes in about 20 sports (he even had a stint helping players with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens). He was now faced with learning the various events in Para athletics.
‘’As with any athletes I learned their weaknesses and strengths to understand the best techniques.’’
A promising rookie
A few years later, Para thrower Jacques Martin invited a young woman to the training group to introduce her to sport. The rookie was Diane Roy, who would ultimately compete in six Paralympic Games.
‘’Jean found me a wheelchair,’’ she remembered. ‘’Two months later, I was training with athletes preparing for the Barcelona Games. A local TV crew came and did interviews. I paid attention to what they were saying because I knew I could be in their shoes in four years.’’
That’s exactly what happened. Roy is on track for a seventh Games in Tokyo. She is a six-time world champion and five-time Paralympic Games medallist, all alongside coach Laroche.
‘’We get along well,’’ she said. “We are like an old couple and we’ve had some disagreements. When I started with him, he was an international level coach. He’s always been there for us and often put his teaching career on hold to travel with the national team. He believed in his athletes.’’
Laroche has now retired from the teaching profession.
‘’Coaching was a priority and I was always there,’’ he said. ‘’I left my tenure at l’Université de Sherbrooke for a while to become a full-time coach. That’s what I wanted to do.’’
Coaches are in short supply in Para athletics, says Laroche, and he has a message that he could have delivered to his younger self some 40 years ago when he was not interested in working with wheelchair athletes.
‘’We need to get out of our comfort zone and not be scared to try new things,’’ he said. ‘’The world has changed and evolved. At the last world championships in Dubai, most of the coaches were coaching abled bodied and athletes with a disability.