Wheelchair rugby veteran Zak Madell sets example with focus on teammates

Canadian Paralympic Committee

October 11, 2023

National team prioritizes friendly and safe environment


TORONTO – Wheelchair rugby superstar Zak Madell says players that enter his sport’s national team sphere can expect a safe and friendly environment to thrive.

‘’We’ve really been working on our culture as Team Canada and I think we’ve made some really good steps where we’re trying to make sure that it’s an environment where everybody feels safe,’’ said Madell, currently preparing for a crucial tournament at the Parapan American Games November 17-26 in Santiago, Chile. The winner gets a ticket to the 2024 Paralympic Games.

Wheelchair rugby was once called ‘murderball’, a term still referenced in the media, and is Para sport’s most rugged discipline. Players regularly crash into each other as they make passes and execute rushes to reach the other’s goal line.

Madell knows it is important to trumpet his team’s safe sport efforts especially when sports participation for people with a disability is still at a very low percentage.

‘’If you have questions or comments and you bring it up, nobody’s going to tear you down or ridicule you; we’re going to be honest with one another,’’ said the 29-year-old from Okotoks, Alta. ‘’At the end of the day, we’re trying to help out one another.”

Madell is the first to set the example.

‘’My focus right now is continuing to build connections with teammates,” he said. ‘’I’m not worried about where I am individually but if I can be the best teammate possible, and help lift up my teammates and make them better players, then the whole team benefits and get stronger.”

Madell is excited to see more athletes in Canada trying out the sport. He says development and recruitment of new athletes is a priority. And that includes women. Wheelchair rugby at the Paralympic and international level is considered a mixed sport, but few women are on the rosters.

Kylie Grimes was a member of the British team that won gold at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. For Canada, Mélanie Labelle is a national team member and Brianna Hennessy, a world championship medallist in Para canoe, plays in the top U.S. league.

Both helped Canada win the bronze medal earlier this year at the inaugural women’s World Cup in Paris.

‘’For a long time, the majority of wheelchair rugby players were wheelchair athletes and now we’re looking elsewhere,” said Madell, who lost his fingers and legs to a septic staph infection at age 10. ‘’We’re starting to see more and more amputees, more people with cerebral palsy, and a variety and range in the disabilities.”

Of course, just to reach the confines of Team Canada in wheelchair rugby won’t happen overnight. The Canadians are a powerhouse in the sport with five medals at eight world championships and four podiums at seven Paralympics. They were fifth at the last world championships in 2022 and the Paralympic Games in Tokyo a year earlier.

Madell says the sport is growing fast at the international level.

‘’We’re seeing new countries every year taking up the sport,’’ he said. ‘’There are big tournaments going on in South America, and Great Britain was the first European team to ever win a Paralympic medal, let alone become Paralympic champions.”

Still with veteran players like Madell, Trevor Hirschfield, and Patrice Simard along with promising youngsters such as Matt Debly and Rio Kanda Kovac, Canada continues to hold its ground and plans to do so for the foreseeable future.


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