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CHAPTER 5: Wheelchair Basketball

With final preparations underway for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, CSIO presents a new article series highlighting the work we do in supporting athletes, coaches, and sport organizations for the Games. The title of the series is Kaizen – a Japanese word which means continuous improvement, and one that seems so fitting. When training and competition were disrupted, athletes adapted and showed resiliency in their relentless pursuit of the podium, and our staff were right there with them. CSIO staff found innovative ways to provide best-in-class programs and services safely, demonstrating unparalleled Kaizen – Elevating People and Performance in Pursuit of #BuildingChampions. Because #WECAN. 

By David Grossman

The connections, the networking and the solution to the puzzle.


They each have meaning and can, in many cases, also leave a lasting impression. Yet, there is also a common thread holding all of them together.

While a global pandemic changed months of doing things for many, it also created a positive link and strengthened a working relationship  in an unexpected way.

People started to benefit from others working in tandem.

It was no different in the world of amateur sport where many high performance athletes with disabilities were having to cope, and deal, with preparation of the spectacle of all spectacles – the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

With a variety of challenges created from the one-year postponement of the showcase of talent, creative minds came forward with a plan. It was more of a goal of sharing resources, creating opportunities and working together in the best interest of many of Canada’s elite athletes.

It was an arrangement. Some saw it more of a strategy that laid out a course of action to ensure Canada’s ambassadors would be ready for the showcase of world talent that first started back in 1960.

In the game of hoops, connections strengthened between Wheelchair Basketball Canada (WBC) and the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO).

A combination of brainstorming would result with the two organizations developing a comprehensive program that would benefit athletes competing in the two weeks of Games that would take place in Japan from August 24 to September 5, 2021.

Could it work?

There was no hesitation. While some may have had their doubts, that would all change when the most profound rewards started to take shape.

Luke Vanderheyden, a Strength and Conditioning Coach with CSIO and the Physical Preparations Specialist with WBC, knew safety was critical.

“We knew that  one way or another, we had to give athletes the best training, the best experience and best environment possible under the circumstances, so that they could perform at the big event,” said Vanderheyden. “We pushed the envelope, but with para sport, it was very clear that we had to be extra cautious.”

With the knowledge of a kinesiologist and experience in sport physiology, Vanderheyden had a good feeling that things could be advantageous. He also knew that the brilliance of Debbie Low, CSIO’s Chief Executive Officer, had set the foundation of success by working with the Ontario Government to establish exemptions for high performance athletes along with a strict code of care testing.

It was all about the athletes, who put the puzzle pieces together. Teamwork and a mingling of the minds helped create a positive atmosphere. It would lead to accessing critical support services along with constant testing for the coronavirus.

“While there had been a relationship between CSIO and WBC, efforts were being made to go above and beyond to assist with the necessary protocols and testing to allow the athletes to train and scrimmage ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics,” added Vanderheyden.

Also involved in the support network was Dr. Steven Dilkas, CSIO’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and a staff physician at the West Park Healthcare Centre, Colby Hathaway, a Strength and Conditioning Coach as well as Ryan Atkison, the Director of Performance Services.

Vanderheyden added that a new technology device was used to support on-site testing when the teams had decided to train in Kingston and move away from the virus hotbed of Toronto. The device used for point of care testing was called the Hyris bCUBE, which was distributed by Songbird Life Science and acquired by Own The Podium.

Jeff Dunbrack, who has been WBC’s High Performance Director for almost five years, said there was reason for concern when things started to shut down. A large pool of athletes, coaches and staff were in the United States and had been playing in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association finals.

“There were some crazy times happening, isolation occurring, facilities were not available in Ontario, and we knew the athletes’ well-being and safety were paramount,” said Dunbrack, an innovative and highly skilled individual committed to the culture of excellence in sport.

“When the integrated support team picked things up with home base training for the athletes, also coaching players via ZOOM, it was a big start. But (Debbie Low) was superb in getting the return to play in motion. It was an early sign or normalcy, and we were back on the court training, in a matter of months, at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.”

With an interest in disability studies going back to his days at Brock University in St. Catharines, Dunbrack was resilient in working with others to support players mental health, as well as adjusting to the times.

“I really do believe that the pandemic strengthened relationships as no one sat back and everyone was so eager to make things work,” said Dunbrack. “The partnership between CSIO and WCB was huge, and I honestly don’t think this would have worked without a strong commitment to do what had to be done to benefit the safety and success of our athletes.”

Canada will have both women’s and men’s wheelchair basketball teams competing in Tokyo.

The women, with 10 returning players from the team that won gold at the Parapan American Games in 2019, will be in Group A for preliminary action against Australia, Japan, and Germany. The men also compete on the hardwood in Group A with Korea, Turkey, Japan, Colombia, and open against Spain on August 26.

Arinn Young is making her second trip to the Paralympics looking for a podium finish. She already has a gold medal from Canada’s strong showing at the 2014 World Wheelchair Basketball Championship in Toronto.

“It has just been awesome what the CSIO and WBC staff have done for us,” said the 25-year-old who, as a 15-year-old, tore her anterior cruciate ligament in a box lacrosse game and a year later, fractured her tibia and femur in a basketball game.

“As an athlete, you want to be the best,” said Young, who plays in a pro league in Germany. “Luke and Jeff have been awesome and care so much about us as athletes. Ask any of the players, they’ll say the same as me. CSIO has been the best thing for us – the training environment, the support. We are so thankful and proud to represent them through our game.”


David GrossmanDavid Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

Media Contact:

Laura Albright, Senior Advisor, Communications & Marketing
Canadian Sport Institute Ontario
Phone: 647.395.7536