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Parapan Am preview: “Pick a sport you’ve never seen before and prepare to be amazed”

U of T Special Ambassador David Onley shares his must-watch list

Sitting volleyball is one of the events hosted by the University of Toronto Scarborough (photo by Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

The final stretch of games showcasing athletic talent from across the Americas kicks off in Toronto on August 7, with the opening ceremonies for the largest-ever Parapan Am Games.
 
A week of competitions featuring popular parasports such as wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and swimming – as well as those that may be new to many spectators, such as boccia and goalball – includes many events on U of T campuses.
 
At the University of Toronto Scarborough, the CIBC Pan Am / Parapan Am Aquatics Centre and Field House will host swimming and sitting volleyball and the new Tennis Centre will host wheelchair tennis. The downtown campus will host field hockey, football 5-a-side and 7-a-side at the Pan Am/Parapan Am Fields and archery competitions at Varsity Stadium.
 
David Onley is a senior lecturer and distinguished visitor at UTSC as well as U of T’s Special Ambassador for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. He shared his most anticipated events for the upcoming games, as well as a few words of advice to spectators – regardless of whether they’ll be watching from stadium seats, their television sets, or Nathan Phillips Square.
 
What’s ahead for you in your role as Special Ambassador for the Parapan Am Games?
I’ve had the enormous privilege in representing the university for the Pan Am and now the ParaPan Am Games. It’s been a wonderful experience meeting the athletes, the organizers, the volunteers, and people from the administration who’ve been working behind the scenes and I’ve enjoyed being able to attend so many events. I’m looking forward to being able to continue that with the ParaPans. Since I’m based out of UTSC, where so many events occur, it’s a wonderful opportunity to show off the facility because it certainly is of Olympian and world standards.
 
What’s the significance of U of T hosting so many events for PanAm and Parapan Am, in your view?
I think it was a fantastic idea that turned quite a significant involvement, with so many events being hosted on our campuses, from swimming to fencing and more. The success was proven out in short order when athletes who are University of Toronto alumni or current students started to win medals.
 
So far the PanAms have been a great opportunity for members of the university community to meet fellow U of T personnel, including Zack Chetrat and Rosie MacLennan, and others who in some cases didn’t win medals but ended up qualifying for the Olympics in Rio. Not all victories come with medals. It’s also been a fabulous chance for U of T to showcase itself to the public and to connect within the greater university community.
 
And when things Pan Am/Parapan happen, it gives us at the university the deserved reputation of being affiliated with sport. In the case of the men’s wheelchair basketball, regardless of where teams place within the Parapans and then in Rio, the focal point will be drawn back to training and competition facilitated by the University of Toronto, and that will apply wherever we increasingly have involvement with parasport.
 
The growth of and interest in parasport is something I believe we have a great opportunity to seize at this university, so that whenever people think of swimmers with disabilities they think of the facilities and community at U of T, or whenever they think of wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby they also make that connection. Nothing but good can come from that.
 
Any advice that you’d like to pass on to spectators and readers?
I tell people to simply go to the games. Pick a sport you’ve never seen before and prepare to be amazed. Until you have seen a blind swimmer, until you have seen athletes competing in wheelchair rugby or wheelchair basketball, you don’t realize and can’t appreciate the raw athleticism of these individuals. And as you watch that and get caught up in the excitement of the competition itself, it’s only when the play is finished and the applause dies down that the secondary aspect of it being a parasport hits you with a wallop.
 
I felt that quite significantly in the men’s final in wheelchair basketball when we took the gold in 2012. It wasn’t until the game was over that it really sunk in: this was not only a great victory for Canada, not only a great basketball game, but to achieve it these guys had to individually overcome significant situations in their lives, whether it was accident or disease. Then it really does give you a different interpretation about the sport, about the individuals competing, and about disability. My urging would be: if you’ve never seen any of these sport events, just get out there and see how quickly you get caught up in the moment of it.
 
Which events are you most highly anticipating?
The basketball, both men and women, is very exciting. But the lesson I learned from Pan Am is to deliberately go to a sport you’ve never seen before. I ended up seeing two evenings of fencing at the Pan Ams and, to be candid, I don’t think I previously would have spent more than five seconds watching a fencing match on TV. But once I got to see it in person, it was enormously fascinating. The same thing with trampoline. Yes, it was great to see Rosie McLennan and to see if she would win, which she did. But I’d never been to a trampoline event before. Go to sports you’ve never seen and prepare to be very surprised, because I certainly was.
 
Also, if you haven’t had the chance to go to Nathan Phillips Square in the evenings, with the main square packed with entertainment and the buzz of different sporting events going on around the big screens – get yourself there. It’s an awful lot of fun.