Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team, known as the Rollers, enjoyed great success on the Paralympic stage with two gold and two silver medals between Atlanta 1996 and London 2012.
The Rollers were heartbreakingly close to clinching gold for a third time in London however, at Rio 2016 despite being the reigning world champions and ranked world No.1, they lost to eventual bronze medallist Great Britain in quarter finals.
For London 2012 silver medallist Jannik Blair, the goal is to return to the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
“We as a programme expect to always be in the podium at a major tournament. That's certainly the goal for Tokyo. I think it's a realistic goal for us,” Blair, who became a paraplegic at 12 when the ute (pick up truck) he was driving flipped and rolled.
“We don't think that we need to drop out of that podium position to do a rebuilding stage. That's something that we think we can avoid doing if we maintain the programme, constantly debut new players and maintain sort of that balance between experience and young players.”
TIME FOR REDEMPTION
The Australian Rollers campaign in Rio did not go to plan. A sixth place finish after a 23-point loss in the quarter finals was their lowest finish in 16 years.
“We were exposed during games where it was obvious that we hadn't spent enough time playing together,” Blair explained before adding, “We hadn't spent enough time together in high pressure environments that have super tight score lines late in the game to be able to perform without letting it get to you, rely on teammates, trust them and have faith that they'll be there whatever the situation is.”
But it was a lesson that led to slight changes within the team.
After Rio 2016, Craig Friday was appointed the new head coach with five-time Paralympian Brad Ness appointed as assistant. Meanwhile, the playing group remained much the same with adjustments to the core starting five and their overall playing style.
It did not take long for Australia to find themselves on the podium again with a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships before qualifying for Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 Asia Oceania Championships, where they beat South Korea in the final.
“To have some success straight away was really important and reassuring to us,” the Horsham born Paralympian said of the World Championship result, “We've had four years together, although the last year we haven't been able to get together. We're going to Tokyo knowing it works, looking forward to another opportunity to be able to demonstrate that.”
Preparations have not been smooth sailing during the pandemic. With internal border closures between states being unpredictable, resulting in training camps being postponed with players unable to travel between states without enforced 14-day hotel quarantine, the last time the Rollers were all together was at the Paralympic qualifying event in December 2019.
“We've learned from experiences we've had in the past where we weren't able to prepare well together and we didn't perform so we're aware that it's pivotal for us to be able to get together, as many of us as we can, for a long period of high-quality training and preparation as possible,” said Blair, who currently resides in Spain.
Thankfully, the Australian-based players have recently been able to ramp up their Paralympic preparations at a camp in Canberra, but for Blair and the other overseas-based Rollers they are hoping to return to Australia as soon as their respective seasons are complete.
“It's hard to plan anything more than a couple of days ahead here, let alone a couple of months,” Blair said. “There are so many question marks and I certainly don't envy the coaching staff that have to try and plan that."
LIFE IN SPAIN
For the past three years, the 28-year-old has been living in Bilbao, Spain playing in the country’s top-flight wheelchair basketball league – División de Honor.
After spending four years in the USA, where he played with the University of Alabama after a stint with the University of Missouri, Blair took up an off to join BSR Bidaideak Bilbao, following Rio 2016.
“I think the everyone would be on the same page in saying that the Spanish league is the strongest – the European leagues are the strongest in the world,” he said.
“It's the deepest in terms of the depth, talent and the regularity of competition. You're playing against a different team every weekend in the strong field with international talent around the world. You can only get better the longer here.”
With the league in Spain giving the Australian everything he needs to be at the top of his game, Blair is hoping to continue is stay in Spain after Tokyo 2020. Unsure of whether he will be staying with Bilbao, its been a wonderful four seasons.
“It's been an awesome experience, but I think I'm more leaning toward something new. New teammates, new city, new experience, while some still relatively young and can do it,” Blair said before adding, “I want to try to experience as much as I can in Europe.”