By Mary Beth Walker
The only female on Canada’s wheelchair rugby team, Erika Schmutz is heading to her first Paralympic Games eight years after being introduced to the sport in rehabilitation.
In 2000, she broke both arms and shattered her C7 vertebra when the car she was in collided with two moose.
When she heard the news that she would be competing in Beijing, her initial reaction was disbelief.
“Competition was fierce,” said Schmutz. “All I could think about was how eight years ago when I got hurt, I told my nurses one day I'd make it to the Paralympics and here I did it.”
Schmutz added though she’s disappointed she could not share the experience with her mother, who was one of her biggest fans, because she passed away in November.
Three years ago, Schmutz was named the third female athlete to make Canada’s national wheelchair rugby team.
“We're lucky in Canada where they have supported female development and never made an issue of it,” Schmutz said. “I know of other countries where this isn't so.”
While the majority of athletes competing in wheelchair rugby at the Paralympic Games are men, countries have the option of entering a team of 11 male athletes, or a mixed team of 12 athletes with a minimum one female.
Schmutz said at times it can be a bit lonely being the only female on Canada’s wheelchair rugby team heading to Beijing.
“As much as I'm one of the guys and they talk of everything in front of me and we hang out as one large family, it's comparable to being the only female in an all male family,” she said. “Most of the time it's great; just now and then though you wish for a sister to talk to.”
Preparing for Beijing
For Schmutz preparing for Beijing is as much about the mental preparation as it is about being ready physically.
“I'm finding there is as much mental as physical training necessary for this pinnacle of competition,” Schmutz said. “The time away from home and family creates its own stress.”
Leading up to the Games, the team will be training and doing a bit of traveling, which on its own can be physically taxing. The team will be going from Melbourne to Beijing to Vancouver.
“With our team being spread across Canada when we do get together, it's very intense, for we know at this level it's the team that makes the least amount of mistakes that will win,” Schmutz said.
Aiming for their best
Wheelchair rugby made its way onto the Paralympic program in 1996 at the Paralympic Summer Games in Atlanta, USA as a demo sport and became a competitive Paralympic sport at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Summer Games. Canada won the silver at the Athens 2004 Games and placed fourth in Sydney.
“Our only objective is to perform to the best of our abilities,” Schmutz said of her goals for Beijing. “We have been one of the top teams for the last five years and have as good a chance as any team to bring home gold. At this level, as for many sports, it's who performs the best on that given day. I think our country, coaching and support staff have given us the tools, now it's up to us to use them.”
Eight countries will compete this September at the Science and Technology Beijing Gymnasium for the wheelchair rugby gold medal. The Paralympic Summer Games open on Saturday September 6. The wheelchair rugby competition starts September 12, with the finals on September 16.