Parasports, to put it simply, are sports that have been adapted and created to be easily played by athletes with disabilities.
They are most often recognized every four years, during the paralympic cycle when media interest allows for greater exposure. This is not the only opportunity for athletes with disabilities to participate in sport, however.
Niagara is home to Ontario’s premier parasport program, the Brock Niagara Penguins.
Karen Natho founded the program in 2006 after moving from Alberta to Niagara. Natho had been doing graduate work with paralympic athletes in Alberta, but upon moving to Niagara, she quickly realised that there were no opportunities for athletes with disabilities in the region.
She approached a few partners, but it quickly became clear that Brock University was the only one with the space and commitment to support her vision. They had humble beginnings: a swim program, then a gym program and then a wheelchair basketball program.
They added paralympic boccia in 2012 after receiving calls from athletes who could not propel themselves in a manual wheelchair.
“We also do a parasport program and the main purpose is to expose people with disabilities to as many programs as possible,” said Natho.
It was around this time that Jim and Loretta Davis got involved with the Penguins. They had been looking to start a wheelchair basketball team.
“It just so happened that she [Natho] had a few chairs already and we started wheelchair basketball through the Brock Niagara Penguins about 12 years ago,” said Jim Davis.
The Penguins offer programs for both youth and adults.
“Our youngest participant is in grade one and our oldest participant is 47 years-old and working as an accountant,” said Natho.
The impact of the program is the same regardless of the age of the participants.
“It gives them a sense of belonging,” said Loretta Davis.
“Playing sports is a major part of staying healthy throughout your whole life and it’s really important for your physical wellbeing as well as your mental wellbeing,” said Jim Davis
The Penguins support over 50 athletes, working to give them the opportunity to be part of a team.
Playing sports is something that for many, is an innate part of childhood. There was always an opportunity to be a part of a team, but for individuals with a disability, those opportunities are simply not always there.
“When you think about your childhood there are very important impactful moments, and for a lot of us our impactful moments are from being part of a team and the friendships that we had when we were growing up. Unfortunately, sometimes people with physical disabilities don’t get those opportunities in their communities and in their schools,” said Natho.
Jim and Loretta Davis have seen the difference since they were growing up. Opportunities existed, but they were limited.
“They probably existed in Toronto, those big cities, but nothing that I ever heard of, not at this magnitude anyway, not at this level,” said Jim Davis.
Participating in sports has allowed many opportunities to flourish. Both Jim and Loretta Davis have been able to move into coaching roles with the Penguins.
“Before I started I was a very shy individual. I kind of would hold back from doing things, but now I’m so confident, I’m doing coaching, I’m doing presentations,” said Loretta Davis.
She started as a wheelchair basketball athlete and has since moved into coaching boccia, which is a sport specifically created for people with cerebral palsy and disabilities that affect motor control.
Jim Davis started as a wheelchair basketball athlete but soon realized that he didn’t have the range of motion to play, he began coaching instead.
“I felt like I had knowledge of the game, I just couldn’t physically keep up, I decided … because of the Penguins I was able to start coaching and be fairly successful at that and then I moved into [playing] boccia,” said Jim Davis.
If it weren’t for the penguins, he may never have discovered his affinity for boccia.
“I’ve had the opportunity to play boccia for Ontario, and I get the opportunity to go all over Canada playing boccia. This November, I’m going to B.C. to play in the Canadian Nationals so I’m very excited about that,” he said.
Jim and Loretta Davis are only two of many athletes that have flourished competing in parasport. Athletes who went through the Penguins program have gone on to compete in paralympic sledge hockey and boccia. Through their wheelchair racing program, two athletes were able to claim gold at OFSAA.
It’s not just winning that matters to the Penguins though, it’s providing individuals with disabilities the same opportunities to be a part of a team as anyone else.
“Not only do we work on individual sports skills but we very much look at them as role models, they’re part of a team, they get jerseys, they get jackets, they are part of a club, they’re part of something bigger than them and we hear that from a lot of our alumni athletes saying how important Penguins was to them,” said Natho.
Karen Natho also sits on the board of directors for ParaSport Ontario, an organization that aims to create opportunities for anyone with a disability to participate in recreational and competitive sports. The opportunity to try a sport is one that many take for granted, it’s easy to pick up a basketball or to find a baseball league in a small town, but to start a wheelchair basketball program? Or find a place to play paralympic boccia? It either requires building something from the ground up, or travelling to find it.
“You know, there’s so many kids who sit at home watching TV, either because they’re scared to try new sports or their parents are scared that their kids might get hurt. You’ve really got to get kids and adults out to try new things to give them the opportunities to do things in life. Sports creates other opportunities,” said Jim Davis.
Opportunities to become leaders, to develop life skills and communication skills are all opportunities that have been provided through parasport.
The Penguins are always looking to grow, to add more programs to meet the needs of their community
“All it takes is someone that wants to start something new and we’ll do our best to accommodate and try to make things happen,” said Jim Davis.
“There’s always tons more sports that we could offer. Having the time and having the manpower to run those would be … we’re working on it,” said Loretta Davis.
The Penguins are run strictly on a volunteer basis, the coaches are volunteers, as is Natho herself. They require 25-30 volunteers to run the program, last year 27 were Brock students.
It’s not just the athletes who have gone on to compete on national teams that the Penguins are proud of, it’s everybody. It’s the little stories of people given the confidence to compete, no longer living an inactive life because they were scared of getting hurt.
“We hear from athletes who were part of our program who have left Niagara or left our program for one reason or another have moved on in their active living life span, they are continuing in sport, continuing to be active,” said Natho.
The Penguins were on their own 14 years ago. Now, thanks to their efforts, parasport has flourished in the region, countless athletes have moved through the Penguins program and other programs like it.
“I really believe that everyone deserves to be part of a team and develop life skills and leadership skills through being on a team and compete or don’t compete depending on what their needs are,” said Natho.