No. 5: Canada defy Paralympic forecasts to beat USA

Canada produced one of the most memorable wheelchair rugby performances ever to defeat arch-rivals USA, 50-49, in the semi-final at London 2012. 27 Dec 2012

Find out which other stories made it into the Top 50 Paralympic Moments of 2012.

It was a done deal. Australia had already beaten Japan in the wheelchair rugby semis, now USA would beat Canada and the Aussies and Americans would meet in the final.

If people weren’t saying it, they were thinking it – except, that is, for the Canadian underdogs.

Going into the competition, USA were ranked first and Canada was fifth.

The last time Canada had beaten USA was at a training camp in Alabama, USA, before Beijing 2008 and in the semi-finals at Athens 2004.

In the locker room before the game, there was no tough team talk from Canadian coach Kevin Orr, just long looks and a silent agreement that this was their time.

USA war cries

Sitting in the tunnel before they entered the stadium, Canada had to endure their opponents chanting, “USA, USA, USA” for around 20 minutes.

“We were almost laughing because it was getting so repetitive and because of how immature they were being,” said 18-year-old Zak Madell.

“It seemed that when we got out there, the US worked so hard on warming up that by the time we got to the Game, they were already worn out,” he joked.

The American war cries did nothing to dampen the Canadian spirits and they went into the match, all guns blazing.

“We were confident going in, even though we were the underdogs. We knew we had a good shot at it, but I don’t think the team thought we would blow them out of the water that much,” said Madell.

Canada took advantage of a couple of easy turnovers at the start, wtih 1.0-pointer Trevor Hirschfield playing a solid reliable game in that respect.

“People don’t expect it coming from a low-pointer,” said Madell. “But he’s just so good at what he does and it made a huge difference in that game.”

The 3.5-pointer was surprised to look up at the score clock after the first quarter to see they were up by seven points.

Secret weapon

At 18, Madell was the youngest player on the team and the newest to top-level competition, having only started playing a year before the Games.

“Even though I was the youngest and newest player out there, I tried not to let that affect my emotions too much,” he said. “I didn’t go out feeling all nervous. I just went out and played rugby the way that I know that I can.”

The youngster has been described by his London 2012 roommate, Mike Whitehead, as Canada’s secret weapon. Leading up to London 2012, he had only played a few minutes each game so that his opponents could not adjust to the way he played and figure out his tricks.

Like Australian star player Ryley Batt, Madell is an amputee athlete and has full trunk function, which gives him some extra power and manoeuvrability. Both play aggressively on court, though Madell’s style is generally cleaner.

USA fight back

With a strong 16-9 lead, the Canadians started to get over-confident and the USA started to turn the screw in the second quarter, with Chuck Aoki the instigator as he scored four goals and forced Canada out of bounds.

“The first quarter was quite an adventure, an unexpected pleasure, that’s for sure, but I remember thinking, don’t get too excited, we’ve been here before,” said 3-pointer Mike Whitehead.

“We’re a team that until we have got somebody on our throats, we’re like OK, you woke up the old guys, let’s play a game here. That usually happens in the fourth quarter. So we’re always trailing and then we win these close games,” said Whitehead. “So everyone is having their minds blown that now we’re a team that’s beating the best team in the world in the first quarter.

The sudden lead threw Canada off-guard, and it was up to coach Kevin Orr to get them back on course.

“The coach made it clear to me that I had changed and I was now playing to lose, instead of to win,” said Whitehead. “With him looking me in the eyes and stating what was obvious, I was able to finish the game with the confidence that I needed, and playing to win.”

Perfect finish

Another tactic that the Canadian team had not revealed until the tournament was for Garett Hickling and Mike Whithead to finish the quarters.

“Hickling is someone who’s been around so long and you can always count on him to play his best when it’s needed,” said Whitehead.

“He played in the most important times in the games,” said Whitehead.

“He is also someone who shines at the biggest moments. So having Hickling finish quarters is a no-brainer for team Canada.”

“Hickling’s very consistent and very positive. When he’s on the court with me, I know that special things are about to happen."

By the final minute, the score was 49-49. Madell was sitting quietly on the bench, dreading the penalty that had just lost Canada a point and Hickling came on to do what he does best.

High tension

Everyone sensed the tension in stadium. Nobody wanted to miss a moment. All eyes were locked on the game.

“I felt a bit of pressure, but I do have a bit of experience,” said Hickling, who has been on the team for almost 20 years.

“The main thing on my mind was, don’t mess this up, you know.”

Whitehead and Hickling got a key turnover, then the US team fouled them twice. Hickling took his time to convert the goal, leaving no time for the USA to take it to overtime and Canada won 50-49.

“You’ve got 12,000 fans there and you hear your bench talking down the clock – that’s quite memorable too,” said Hickling.

In a moment they will remember for the rest of their lives, the team stormed the court as the clock hit zero.

“It felt incredible,” said Hickling.”The USA have been one of the more dominant teams in the last 10 years. It always feels good when you beat one of the No. 1 teams.

“It’s an incredible honour (to be the No. 5 moment of the year). We go to play hard and have fun. Just to be a memorable moment in all the sports at the Paralympics is a great honour,” said Hickling, who has his heart set on gold at Rio 2016.

“We do have two silvers and one bronze – definitely missing the gold.”

Editor’s Note: For the final 50 days of the year, the IPC will count down the year’s top moments in Paralympic sport, culminating with the year’s best moment on 31 December.

The 50 moments were selected by nominations from National Paralympic Committees and International Federations and are based on sport performance, emotional moments, media attraction and athletes’ personal stories.