The eleventh-ranked Canadian men boast a roster that balances several veterans and newer athletes. This experience and energy will be vital in what’s expected to be a challenging tournament.
But from coach Smith’s perspective, his squad has been putting in the work during team and individual training sessions to make their Paralympic dreams come true.
“We’re working hard to grow our game, and we do that by coming together once a month for training camp. We work with a strength and conditioning coach, and outside camp it’s expected the players go out and train on their own,” Smith explained. “…The mental side of the game is very important to us too, because that’s what can continue to lead us to success.”
Despite physical and psychological preparation, the team faces geographic and financial barriers that make their journey to Paris difficult.
Smith says his players get less exposure to the top international teams as they aren’t consistently able to travel overseas where many of the club and exhibition competitions take place.
Moreover, because his athletes live from coast to coast, it can be difficult to monitor players’ individual progress and needs. Sometimes it’s impossible to get the whole team together to train because many athletes have full-time jobs and find it difficult to get time off work to practice.
Foster, who resides in Thunder Bay, Ont., faces the geographic obstacle as he has no one to train with when he’s at home.
To remedy the situation, Foster keeps his goals and personal development at the forefront, meticulously planning his individual court time when he’s able to receive it.
“When I’m at home I have to make the most of it because I’m so far away from the other guys. So I focus strictly on my individual skills, which is where I see myself grow,” Foster said. “Once I’ve done that, I put myself in a better spot to succeed because I go back to team training as a better player. And I know my teammates do this as well.”
Hurdles aside, Foster and Smith are confident, collected and motivated when it comes to the Para qualifier and the team’s road to Paris.
But in addition to training hard to make the global event, Smith believes that educating the public about sitting volleyball is an integral part of their Paralympic journey.
“Para sport is under-respected in the sports world, so we want to show that Para athletes train just as hard as regular Olympians, and do it while overcoming physical and medical challenges like infected stumps or mobility problems too,” he explained. “We want to help people understand the mental toughness, physicality and excitement of our sport.”
When asked to reflect on the possibility of representing Canada at the Paralympics, Foster is left speechless, eventually noting that it would be an “indescribable” feeling to represent his country with his “teammates who have become family.”
As some of the players have been training for over 15 years to attend the Paralympics, he added that it would “mean a lot to help them finally get there.”
For Smith, the pressure associated with May’s qualifier – and the idea of making it to Paris – is a privilege rather than a stressor.
“For us to go to the Paralympics would be an accumulation of years of hard work, and show that our program, amidst our hurdles, can compete against the best in the world,” Smith said. “…So please, come watch us, enjoy the sport, and cheer us on as we try to make history for Canada.”
Article by Julia Ranney, photo: Jody Bailey
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