Abdi Fatah Dini leads the Canadian Senior Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team into Rio this September to defend their Paralympic gold as a man whose life has been shaped by his sport.
In what Dini admits could be his last Paralympic Games he sees not just his playing career coming full circle, but his life off the court that changed dramatically when he moved to Canada from Somalia as a boy.
“It’s changed me a lot as a person,” Dini said. “Meeting people with all sorts of different disabilities, which I never really got to experience at a younger age. Learning from different people and their backgrounds helped me to open my eyes. It made me appreciate who I am and what I can do, for the team and as a person.”
Whether he is at home in Scarborough or fighting for a rebound later this year at Carioca Arena in Rio, Dini is far from his first known home.
In Somalia, Dini grew up through the early years of the Somali Civil War. When he was 10, a ricochet bullet struck Dini in his spinal cord, leaving him a paraplegic.
Two years after his injury, Dini’s parents, in hopes of finding a better life for their son, made the decision to move Abdi to Toronto where he lived with his uncle. Though they still communicate often and follow his career, Dini has not seen his parents since.
Described by his coaches and teammates as the quiet leader of Canada’s National Team, Dini expresses an appreciation for the life he’s been given and the opportunities that he has found in his sport.
“I try to appreciate every day in life,” he said. “I try to be humble. I’ve dealt with lots of situations, but I try to be humble and just enjoy life.”
Dini still recalls his introduction to the game of wheelchair basketball. As a high school student in Toronto, Dini was helping with the school’s basketball programs when a teacher suggested that he meet a local coach at Variety Village in Scarborough.
“Instead of doing nothing on weekends,” Dini obliged. That coach turned out to be Steve Bialowas, who in 2015 was named the head coach of Dini’s Canadian Senior National Team.
Bialowas and Dini have crossed paths at every step along the way since that first meeting, from a gold medal at the 2001 World Junior Championships in Brazil to their current challenge that awaits them in that same country 15 years later.
Across the nearly two decades, Bialowas has seen Dini grow from a boy into a man that younger players now look to for leadership and guidance.
“Basketball was kind of a respite,” Bialowas said. “An area where he could go and grow, and the team became his extended family. He’s a man now. He was just 16 when we first met him, but he’s matured now and is very much a leader.”
Dini sees this growth in himself, too. With the Canadian team losing several key veterans after the London 2012 Games, he is taking lessons learned from the early years of his career and using them to lead the next generation of wheelchair basketball stars in Canada.
“When I made the team in 2008 I was the youngest guy on the team,” Dini said, “and I had these guys who had played in three or four Paralympics since the early 90s. They kind of showed me what to expect of myself, and what they expected of me on and off the court. Now I have to do the same for the younger guys, mentor them and make sure they are ready.”
Now 35, Dini is facing a major decision on his playing career following these Rio Games.
“It’s something I have to decide after the Paralympics are over this year,” he said. Dini intends on returning to school when his playing days are over to finish a degree in business finance. “I have to look ahead in life. I want to finish my degree, and that’s my number one goal after Rio.”
He also hopes to stay involved with the Senior Men’s National Team in some capacity when he steps away from the court, potentially in a coaching role. For his playing career, coach Bialowas sees Dini as the epitome of what Team Canada looks for in a person, not just a player.
“He’s a great individual,” Bialowas said, recounting the years since he’d met that quiet 16-year-old boy in a Scarborough gym. “Beyond everything else, he’s one of the kindest guys you know and he would do anything for his teammates. He doesn’t take things for granted. I’m very proud of him. Beyond sport, we want tremendous people. We want outstanding people to be part of our team and he is one of those.”