Wheelchair team gets top honour

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 6:55 AM ET

Paul Bowes says the Canadian men's wheelchair basketball team deserves to give itself a collective wheelie.

The Londoner, who coaches the national team, was in Beijing on the weekend to receive an award from the International Paralympic Committee.

Canada is the first recipient as male team of the year for its outstanding contribution to the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.

"This is a confirmation of all our hard work over eight years," Bowes said yesterday before jumping on another plane to head for Colorado Springs and the Americas Zone qualifying tournament for the 2006 world championship in Amsterdam.

Canada won back-to-back Paralympic gold medals -- in Sydney and Athens -- but Bowes said the award was as much for the Canadians' spirit.

"I remember our team liaison during the course of the Games, George Papapolymerou of the Greek sport community, saying 'Your team plays a game to which the rest of the world is unfamiliar with and you do it in a style that embodies the Paralympic spirit,' " Bowes said.

"And it's just not the way our guys play the game. It's the attitude of our athletes. Our guys knew they were a notch above the rest of the competition, but they did not try to embarrass anybody. And off the court they are so obliging, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

"The way the guys conducted themselves in a real Canadian spirit was fantastic."

Bowes has been involved with the national team since 1993 but four months ago took a two-year leave of absence from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to serve as the first full-time head coach.

He started with the Forest City Flyers and the London Wheelchair Basketball Association in 1988 after stepson Jason Clark began playing.

Clark was injured in a train accident when he was 15.

"He did the kid thing and tried to jump on the back of a train. He's a double amputee," Bowes said.

LWBA founder Keith Cartwright got Clark into the program. Cartwright, 57, died in October 2004, succumbing to bone cancer.

Bowes has seen the world through wheelchair basketball. He's been to three Paralympics, four world championships and two junior worlds.

In Beijing on the weekend, he conducted a camp for the Chinese team.

"It was a whirlwind trip," he said. "I left Thursday morning for Beijing (site of the 2008 Paralympics, which follow the Olympics). I got home late Sunday night. Now it's off to Colorado Springs.

The tournament, that also involves the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Argentina, opens Tuesday and will see three teams go to the worlds in July. No players on the Canadian roster are from London.

Bowes said the players make a huge sacrifice, having to take time away from work, but they earned the recognition given by the International Paralympic Committee.

He said the players understand their responsibility as role models.

"They're all outstanding athletes and outstanding people."


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