Pender’s wheelchair basketball star ready for gold

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The Gulf Islands may be boasting a gold-medal Paralympic athlete as one of their own later this summer, with wheelchair basketball star Kady Dandeneau determined to roll onto the podium at the Tokyo games. 

The 2020 Paralympic Games will take place from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5 following COVID disruptions last year. Judging by their last appearance on the world stage in 2019, Canada’s senior women’s wheelchair basketball team has an excellent chance of realizing their dreams. 

“It’s crazy, you know. Being a kid from Pender, who would have thought?” Dandeneau told the Driftwood during a short training break. “So it’s super exciting to represent everybody back home.”

Before taking up wheelchair basketball, Dandeneau was an all-star standup basketball player at the University of Northern British Columbia. She first started playing when she was around 12 and continued at Stelly’s Secondary School in Saanich before joining the Timberwolves. She graduated from UNBC with a degree in health sciences in 2013 and went on to study kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before taking to the court for the Canadian national team, she played for the BC Breakers and BC Royals teams.

Dandeneau’s standup basketball dreams were dashed after she suffered a career-ending injury in 2010, eventually requiring four operations on her knee. She also developed a bone defect as a result of a fracture in her femur. Her change in paths came about because she had worked with fellow Pender Island native and former Team Canada coach Tim Frick at his kids’ program on Pender. 

Frick started suggesting Dandeneau try wheelchair basketball after her first surgery. After her third, he informed her he’d signed her up for a training camp. Another training camp followed after that.

“It’s kind of funny because it wasn’t really my decision, it was Tim pushing me. But I’m super grateful that he did it,” she said.

Dandeneau moved to Toronto to train full-time at the national facility in October 2016. The team had a disappointing fifth-place performance at the 2018 world championships but worked together to turn things around after that. They did that so successfully they won the gold medal at the Parapan Am Games in Lima the following year. This secured their berth at the 2020 Paralympics, while Dandeneau became the first wheelchair basketball athlete in Canadian history to record a “triple-double” point spread during Canada’s 67-64 victory over the United States. She was among the leaders in most offensive categories, including first in field goal percentage and free throws made, and she went on to be named Wheelchair Basketball Canada’s female athlete of the year.

Despite some key similarities, Dandeneau had a lot to learn when making the switch from standup to wheelchair basketball.

“Wheelchair basketball is very much a team sport — you can’t rely on a couple of players,” she explained. “The saying ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link’ is bang-on for wheelchair basketball. You really need all five players to be working as a unit, to be sure.”

Dandeneau said she was lucky to benefit from the guidance provided by Mike Frogley, who was the national coach when she first arrived in Toronto. The national team had worked together for around a year and a half when COVID hit and group training was shut down. The athletes tried to keep up on their own as best they could, but Dandeneau said probably everyone had wondered if it was worth it at some point. Some training camps were permitted to resume in November and December 2020, and group practices went ahead after Christmas. 

National team members living all across Canada assembled in Toronto to begin their final training push in May, and they work at it full time. An average day starts with a two-hour practice in the morning, followed by an hour and a half of lifts and then another two-hour practice in the afternoon. In between, the players fit in other cardio and shooting work-outs as well as mental performance meetings and video study sessions. 

Dandeneau said she is extremely confident in the team’s mental state and their ability to reach their goal, which is firmly the gold medal.

“That’s what we’ve wanted, and that’s what I think we’re capable of,” she said.

The team will leave Canada on Aug. 13 and travel to Nagoya before they enter the athletes’ village in Tokyo. Basketball players are fortunate their games will be played in air-conditioned arenas, so they don’t have to do the same intense training for Tokyo’s heat and humidity as those playing outdoor sports must do. The wheelchair basketball team is training their sleep cycles and circadian rhythms to adjust to the eventual time change, as Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of Toronto. 

One of the common misconceptions about the Paralympics, Dandeneau said, is that they are recreational or somehow not as gruelling or high-level as the Olympic Games. In fact, the para-athletes are training just as long and as hard as able-bodied athletes, with the same will to excel, and often alongside the Olympians in the same facilities. Such commitment does not come easy, so Dandeneau has huge gratitude for the CAN Fund organization for providing some much-needed financial support to herself and most of her teammates. 

Home community support is also crucial, Dandeneau said. She’s extremely grateful for all the words of encouragement and congratulations that people have been sending her way.

“I get so many messages from everybody: friends, family and people I hardly know. I love all the little notes and shout-outs. It really does go a long way,” she said.

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