“Every time we play the US I think it can't get any tougher... until we play them the next time.”
One of the fiercest rivalries in wheelchair rugby went to a new level during the sport’s debut at the Toronto 2015 Para Pan American Games in Canada.
The host nation faced USA in two thrilling matches during the tournament, but it was the Canadians who reaffirmed their No. 1 status with a hard-fought win in the gold-medal match. The epic battle, mixed with the crowd energy makes this No. 5 in the International Paralympic Committee’s Top 50 Moments of 2015.
The USA won their pool match against Canada 60-59, but only after two periods of overtime.
However, the hosts had the last laugh, taking out an equally impressive final 57-54 in front of a huge home crowd.
Star Canadian high-pointer Zak Madell was again in the thick of the action, leading the goal scoring for the tournament.
“I felt partly responsible for our loss in the pool play game after giving up a crucial turnover that led to the second overtime, and ultimately us losing the game,” Madell said. “We came out a little bit flustered at the beginning of the gold medal game, but the fact that we got the come-from-behind win made it that much more exciting for us, as well as the fans.
“Every time we play the US I think it can't get any tougher... until we play them the next time,” he added.
Madell said the US had the upper hand mentally after beating them in double overtime the previous game.
“After a 5-1 deficit at the beginning, we called a time-out to get everyone settled down,” Madell said. “Starting the second half we managed to force several turnovers in a row and put ourselves back in the game.”
He added that playing on home soil gave Canada extra incentive to win for its home fans. On top of that, there was only one qualifying spot for the 2016 Paralympics available at that tournament because Brazil automatically secured a spot as the hosts.
But Canada further stamped their No. 1 status in the world by winning the BT World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge in London, Great Britain in October.
The USA’s high-pointer Chuck Aoki said losing never feels good, especially in a game with such high stakes.
“There was a lot of frustration on our part, as we felt that as a team we'd failed to play together for four quarters, and that led to our disappointment in Toronto,” Aoki said.
“Both matches had a Paralympic-type atmosphere to them, which is a credit to Canada and their fans. The intensity for both games was incredible, especially our round robin game against them, which technically ‘didn't matter,’ in that we were both already through to the semi-finals.
Aoki added that team USA’s plan was not executed well enough to win.
“We play a high paced, aggressive, fast game, in which dozens of calls could go either way throughout the course of the game,” he said. “With qualification on the line, playing in wheelchair rugby's debut in the Parapan American Games, and taking place in Canada, we definitely felt pressure to win.”
Colombia finished with the bronze medal after beating Brazil, 50-48.
Both Madell and Aoki commended the efforts of the South American nations at the tournament, saying the future of the sport is bright in that region.
“We only see them about every two years, so it is very encouraging to see our sport developing world wide, Madell said.
“Considering the move from fifth place at the 2011 and 2013 zonal qualifying tournaments to third at Parapans, I don't think it will be too long before they [Colombia] are giving our team and the Americans a good challenge.”
Aoki recalled the first American zonal championships, which was Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and the USA. This time, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay and Peru were in.
“Colombia and Brazil have a ton of potential moving forward, it remains to be seen which one can leap up into the next level of play,” Aoki said.
“I would like to see both nations test themselves against some of Europe's lower-level sides, to get a taste of more international competition.”
To find out more about the IPC’s Top 50 Moments of 2015, visit the dedicated page on the IPC’s website.