Turin, March 11th – In the hard-nosed world of funding for athletes, Jean Labonté still has a hard time believing it.
Labonté was at home near Ottawa two years ago when the telephone rang. On the line was his Team Canada Sledge Hockey teammate Paul Rosen with news that the Paralympic athletes would be receiving funding and support equal to that of able-bodied athletes in Canada.
“I said, “What? You’re kidding,” says Labonté. “I had to pinch myself.”
Hockey Canada had invited Sledge Hockey to become part of the national grassroots organization. For national team athletes like Labonté and Rosen, they joined the elite High Performance Program and were soon learning about nutrition, off-ice training techniques and working with sports psychologists.
They also no longer face hefty equipment costs. Until the change, such expenses came out of their pockets or simply remained dreams.
The Para-athletes also became what in Canada is known as “carded athletes” – and with that came a huge increase in funding from the Canadian government, à
“I still remember getting my first cheque in the mail,” said Labonté during a break at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. “It changed everything. It changed the way our sport was perceived. Life has changed for the better.”
Hockey players enter Hockey Canada’s High Performance in their teens, and by the time they represent Canada on the world stage in competitions like the World Junior Championship, the Olympic Winter Games and the World Championship, they have grown accustomed to the pressures of having the weight of a hockey-mad country on their shoulders.
For sledge hockey players like Labonté, this is a brave new world, dealing with the expectations of a powerful national grassroots organization.
“Now when we come to events like this there are high expectations. Those expectations were there before but now they are a little different. It’s true we have to perform but we want to show we are worthy of the funding.”
Shaunna Taylor is the sports psychologist with the Canadian Sledge Hockey Team in Turin. She says Para-athletes like Labonté and Rosen don’t need a lot of motivation and they don’t feel any extra pressure because of the change in status.
“They are self-motivated,” said Taylor. “They want to set the bar for their sport.”
The support the Canadian athletes receive is in startling contrast to some of their opponents in Turin.
Norway head coach Morten Haglund said the biggest difference between playing at the World Championship and at the Paralympic Winter Games was that he did not have to pay for his flight to Turin.
Nathan Stephens of Great Britain drained his bank account of 1300 euros to get to the Paralympics.
Labonté knows he is fortunate.
“I do not know where I would be without this support. I spent about four years (after he lost his leg to cancer) wondering what to do with my life and then I found this sport. It changed my life and I am a better person because of it.”