Wheelchair rugby star missed out on Parapan and wants to make amends in Rio
It is days before the opening of the 2015 Parapan Am Games in Toronto. Team Canada is preparing for the first round of the wheelchair rugby competition, an event making its Parapan Ams debut, and the home nation are gold-medal favourites.
Miranda Biletski, the only female on a team that hasn’t won gold in international competition since 2002, should be nervous with excitement, but she’s not. The 26-year-old has been struck down by injury at the last hour and will miss the Games.
It was a bitter blow for Biletski, who, in 2014, became the first woman to play in a gold medal game at a world championships.
“We had a good year last year and she wasn’t involved with it,” admitted head coach Kevin Orr. “But I think with her coming back we’re going to be that much better.”
Seven months after bitter-sweetly watching her teammates wear gold on home soil, she’s back in training and ready for the build up to the Paralympics in Rio De Janeiro as well as any question marks that get thrown her way.
“Some people probably underestimate me a little bit but I think that happens with everybody and injury a year out from the Games,” said the Regina native.
“I’ve just missed two major tournaments, nobody has seen me in a while. Not so much people in our program but I’m sure internationally there’s some question marks, which is fine by me.”
Come September in Brazil, Biletski hopes to become the first woman to win a Paralympic gold medal in wheelchair rugby.
“I haven’t actually been to a Games yet,” said the University of Victoria student who is pursuing a career in sports management. “Rio will be the first, knock on wood, but I’m expecting to be there.”
Biletski took up wheelchair rugby in 2007, after she was injured in a diving accident, in part thanks to the encouragement of fellow Saskatchewan para-athletes Clayton Gerein and Daryl Stubel.
“When I first came in, Miranda wasn’t even on the national team scene,” said Orr, who has been Canada’s national coach since 2009. “I saw her and I thought she has all the tools that it takes to be successful.”
Before coaching, Orr was a wheelchair racer, winning two Paralympic bronze medals. He was previously head coach of the United States national team.
“Miranda has a lot of self-confidence. She’s the kind of person that you look for in an athletic profile for our sport,” added Orr, who also won four national college championships in wheelchair basketball.
While wheelchair rugby is a co-ed sport, it remains male dominated and Biletski suggests it requires a particular competitive streak.
“For someone to play a contact sport with all men it’s definitely not everyone’s piece of cake,” said Biletski, who is working towards a future career in sports management. “I’ve seen a lot of women struggle to adjust with it.”
Biletski points to her childhood, as the only girl in her family, as ideal preparation for her burgeoning rugby career.
“I had an only brother and all my cousins were boys so I’ve always been beaten up and played sports with boys so it was something I naturally gravitated towards,” said the player who competes with a 1.0 classification.
Classification is a measure of functional physical ability. The four-player team on court must not add up to more than 8.0 classification points. Class profiles range from 0.5 to 3.5, with a lower number indicating more limited physical function and vice versa.
Wheelchair rugby was invented in Winnipeg in the 1970s, and was originally known as “Murderball.”
Biletski believes she has developed mutual respect with the majority male athlete body.
“People have gotten used to the fact that I hold no punches,” said the now 27-year-old, who is one of only a handful of women to play the sport at an elite level worldwide.
“I don’t want to say people are scared of me but I’ve kind of established I’m not one to mess with if it comes to any forms of discriminating against any of the women in the sport.”
Team Canada finished second at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and third in Beijing in 2008. Reflecting on sportsmanship within the game, Biletski is clear about one thing as Rio approaches:
“I have a lot of friends internationally from the sport but I’m not there to make friends, we’re there to win,” said the former swimmer. “I think anything less than that would be a really big disappointment.”
Orr said the favourite tag doesn’t bring extra pressure but rather his team is focused on a winning goal.
“I think the three young players (Cody Caldwell, Zac Madell and Biletski) will play a key role for us winning a gold medal in Rio,” said the Illinois native.
“There’s been a bit of a culture change and changing out of the guard and Miranda’s been part of that.”
Biletski also played competitive water polo before her accident and she continues to be drawn to the water.
“I don’t know if everyone out here fully appreciates it,” she said of her current home in British Columbia. “I live really close to the water so every morning when I’m driving to the gym I see the ocean and then the mountains down in Washington.”
Biletski still feels most comfortable when surrounded by water.
“It’s probably been about 11 years since I swam and I still get excited when I smell chlorine. It’s one of my favourite smells, which is really weird for most people but I’ve spent half my life in a pool.”
Come September, she will hope to be by Brazil’s Atlantic coast, smelling only of success.