MONTREAL – Jose Rebelo and Doug Learoyd have experienced the highs and lows as volleyball athletes with a disability.
Both are former members of Canada’s standing Para volleyball team, a sport that was mainly for amputees and was part of the Paralympic Games program from 1976 in Toronto until Sydney 2000. Now they are considered trailblazers for the men’s sitting program, which is progressing in the international rankings.
Rebelo was a member of the national standing volleyball team from 1996 to 2002. He helped Canada to the silver medal at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games and to world titles in 2002, 2004 and 2006. He switched to the sitting game in 2007.
Learoyd first got involved in volleyball in 2003. A year later, in 2004, he joined the Canadian national men’s standing volleyball team at age 14 and helped Canada to the world title in 2006. He’s been on the national sitting team since 2007 when he was only 17.
Fifteen years later, both athletes are in the line-up for Team Canada at this week’s 2022 World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championships, running November 4-11 in Sarajevo. Unlike their experience with the standing team, success has been fleeting for the men’s sitting team as they try to crack the world’s top-10.
“It’s been a long time,” admitted the 32-year-old Learoyd about his many years in the sport. “At the heart of it is you love competition; you love testing yourself against other countries and players who are receiving the same level of training as you.
“On the flip side, it’s the team dynamic, you get to see guys grow and challenge yourself along with them.”
Now at age 50, Rebelo has kept himself in magnificent shape to continue to pursue this physically demanding and quick-thinking sport. He actually retired in 2016, after the team fell short for a Paralympic Games berth. However he was convinced by coaching staff to return in 2020 and help the team in its bid for the Tokyo Games, which was also unsuccessful.
This time though Rebelo is sticking with the team.
“I got the bug again immediately after my first training camp in 2020,” said Rebelo, who is also the manager for sport and outdoor activities at Parc Jean-Drapeau in Montreal. “With the Games postponement until 2021 and now with less than two years before Paris I’ve decided to help the guys until then. After that though, I will definitely retire for good.”
Despite four years off the floor, the return was less painful than anticipated.
“I was very surprised my body could still follow,” Rebelo said. “I’m not as strong but my conditioning is still there. It was just the backside that needed to readjust. After that first camp I was pretty sore. It was like I’d never played sitting volleyball before.”
Both players not only bring strong playing skills and tactical experience, but also provide leadership to a squad that’s trying to find the right chemistry for success.
“The coaches were keen to tap into my experience and they felt my technical skills were still there for counter attacks, serves, receptions and overall defensive play,” said Rebelo. “The younger guys take care of the offence because they can hit the ball harder.”
Learoyd, an orthotic technician at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, became the team captain a couple of seasons ago and has learned to pick his spots when a voice is needed.
“I think it’s a natural progression when you’ve been around a long time,” he said. ‘’Showing how things work at these tournaments especially for those that haven’t been there before.
“But you have to be yourself. There are times you need to be more vocal but for me I’m still a more lead by example.”
If the younger players follow the lead by Learoyd and Rebelo, expect them to stick around for a while.