Two weeks after being named as the youngest member of the Canadian Paralympic wheelchair basketball squad, Liam Hickey did something his family and friends never thought he would do.
“I’m glad it’s over with now and I can just look at it.”
He got a tattoo.
Hickey’s first ever ink-job is an image of a tigers eyes, sprawling down his left forearm, elbow to wrist.
“It’s all about the focus, the courage and the determination that it takes when you need to go out on the court,” said the 18-year-old. “I wanted to have something to look at before a game, to get my head where it needs to be, if it’s not already there.”
Hickey’s road to Rio started back in his hometown of St John’s, Newfoundland.
Aged eight, he joined a wheelchair basketball program running out of his local Easter Seals, which provides programs and services to children and youth with physical disabilities. However, it wasn’t love at first sight.
“To be honest, I didn’t really like it at first,” admitted the five-foot-11 rookie. “It took a couple of practices to see what it could develop into, what I could be.
“That’s when it really opened my eyes to the sport and I fell in love with it.”
While he played stand-up basketball from kindergarten onwards, Hickey was born without a femur in his right leg and underwent surgery at age four to enable him to wear a prosthetic device.
After nurturing a passion for the wheelchair game, Hickey joined the PEI Mustangs in the Maritime Wheelchair Basketball League to experience some higher level competition.
This meant missing a significant amount of school time, but Liam believes the challenges were worth it.
“It helped me developed my skill, get games in there that I would never be able to get in at home,” said Hickey, who was named 2015 Junior Athlete of the Year by Wheelchair Basketball Canada. “It was a great experience.”
“I’m always at home practicing by myself so to get some good high quality games in was good for me.”
Liam joined up with his national teammates in Toronto this week for a centralized training camp but his arrival was delayed because he needed to complete his high school exams.
Hickey, who is incredibly mature for his age, has always had plenty of pressures on his time.
He first made the Canadian national team as a sledge hockey player and in 2014, narrowly missed out on going to Sochi for the Winter Paralympic games.
“It was a bit of a blow not to make the team going into Sochi,” said the highly driven youngster. “I wanted to make it and it sucked to get cut, but at the same time I was really young then so it wasn’t highly expected.”
With the 2016 Summer Games on the horizon, Hickey, in conjunction with the wheelchair basketball and hockey coaching setups, decided it was time to switch focus.
“This is a Paralympic year and 110 per cent of my focus should be on the sport that I’m involved in for that year,” said the East Coast native.
After the disappointment of Sochi came the joy of being named to the 12-man roster for Rio at a special presentation in Toronto at the end of May.
“To make the team for Rio was a huge honour. It still hasn’t fully sunk in to be honest,” said Hickey.
“Being able to say I’m going to be wearing the Canadian jersey and playing for my country. I can’t wait to get out there on the big court in Rio and show the country what our team has to offer.”
Hickey is delighted to be bringing, “the whole show” with him to Brazil, namely his parents, sister, girlfriend, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
Learning from experience
He talks in goal-orientated tones, knowing his place on the team. At 18, the youngest member on the squad, Hickey will play alongside a wealth of experience, including two-time Paralympic gold medallist David Eng and locker room jokester Chad Jassman.
“I soak in every opportunity I get to play with those guys and every opportunity I get to have them teach me,” said Hickey.
“I want to get to where they are at some point in my career so that’s what I’m working towards.”
While Hickey points to the incredible basketball IQ of Jassman, who will be 33 when the Games wrap up in September, the Albertan veteran says of his rookie teammate:
“All amped up, tons of energy, he brings that extra little bit of zest and he’s going to be a great player for team Canada for years to come.”
Hickey, whose main strength is his speed, recognizes he still has much room for improvement and is concentrating on his shooting percentages ahead of the Paralympics.
Going one better
At last year’s Parapan Am Games in Toronto, the Canadian men’s team lost the gold medal game to perennial rivals the United States.
The result confirmed qualification for the Rio Games but wasn’t the result the team was hoping for. Hickey is ready to draw on lessons learnt to go one better come September.
“It was a great experience for me and all the rookies to get the first big taste of real competition on a big stage, especially on home soil,” he said.
“I can guarantee you that everyone on this team right now is putting 110 per cent of their effort into winning that gold medal when we get to Rio.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes.”
Photo Credit: Canadian Paralympic Committee