A historic new chapter for Canadian wheelchair rugby opens in Paris this week, as Canada sends a women’s team to compete internationally for the first time ever.
The 10-woman roster will make its debut at the third edition of the Women’s Cup, which will take place March 9-11 at the Center Sportif Émile Anthoine in central Paris.
The competition, held every two years, is the only international women’s event on the wheelchair rugby calendar. A squad from Great Britain will also be present, along with three teams made up of players from across Europe, the United States, Australia and South Korea.
Wheelchair rugby is a mixed gender sport at Paralympic level, but the number of female players has grown significantly in recent years. The 2022 world championships in Denmark featured a record 13 women, including three in champion Australia’s team.
For Canadian women’s head coach Kendra Todd, the 2023 Women’s Cup is a great opportunity to grow the women’s game at home.
“I think it will be monumental,” Todd told CBC Sports. “I think there are a lot of women who could play the sport of wheelchair rugby, but maybe they don’t see themselves represented as often and maybe see it as a male sport, and there are fewer opportunities participation in it. “
Here is your Women’s Cup schedule for Paris 🇫🇷
🍁 and 🇬🇧 start in the opening of the competition.
Voici le calendrier de votre coupe féminine pour Paris 🇫🇷
🍁 et 🇬🇧 font débuts en ouverture du tournoi. pic.twitter.com/yCs0xUP9A2
Wheelchair rugby is a sport for athletes with mobility disabilities in at least three limbs. It is played on a hardwood court, mixing elements of handball, rugby and basketball.
Players are broken down into one of seven point classes (0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, or 3.5) depending on their functional ability. Higher classifications are assigned to players with higher functional levels, while lower classifications are assigned to players with lesser functional ability.
To ensure that teams have an even mix of athletes with different functional levels, the combined classification value of an on-court lineup (four players) cannot exceed eight points.
Canada’s women’s roster features players from BC, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, with Mélanie Labelle and Erika Schmutz leading the way as players with national team experience.
Labelle is excited about the team’s debut and the potential to bring more women into the sport she loves.
“With my level of disability, sometimes it can seem difficult to start something or imagine that you can play sports or that level of sports,” Labelle told CBC Sports. “But when you get in the chair and you see that this sport is inclusive for your type of disability, it just clicks and you just want more.”
SEE | Mélaine Labelle aims to inspire young athletes with disabilities:
Schmutz back for another historic moment
Schmutz is no stranger to making wheelchair rugby history, having become the first woman ever to score a try at the Paralympics in 2008.
The 50-year-old from Windsor, Ont., is returning to compete for Canada for the first time since retiring from the national program in 2012.
“This opportunity to send an all-female team to represent Canada is a must. The pride of representing your country, the experience gained playing internationally and the confidence you gain playing games will never go away. competitive, but for the benefit of our current and next generation of female athletes,” Schmutz said in a release.
Labelle and Kristen Cameron are currently the only women with a Canadian national roster, but Cameron will miss the Women’s Cup due to health issues.
She is excited to show the women’s team what they can do against tough competition, saying the players are ready to compete at a high level and not just participate.
“They’re the people who want to compete. They have that sense of humor. They respect the sport and they want to be respected. I’m so proud of that group,” Labelle said.
“What all the girls say about this tournament is how important it is for them to compete and be seen as complete athletes.”
Canada’s all-women team is also historic.
Todd has been involved as a wheelchair rugby coach for the past five years, at local and provincial level. She always dreamed of seeing the Canadian women’s team.
“I think a lot of times women aren’t always viewed as athletically talented as men, especially in coed sports,” Todd said. “I think there’s an opportunity for women to be leaders and show how athletically talented they are, and how dedicated and fierce and how strong of a competitor they are, I’d say it’s in time.”
The team had a chance to build chemistry at an exhibition tournament in Calgary last week, where Canada’s first women’s wheelchair rugby training camp was held.
The Canadian roster was split into two squads for the Ignite tournament, where they played against male players on club teams from Edmonton, BC, and Calgary.
The women’s team eventually took the lead in the final against the Edmonton Steel Wheels, marking a strong start to their new journey.
“I think the team is really excited to continue working together and show directly that we can execute in Paris and we will execute in Paris, and then just see where we can get in future,” Todd said.
“I’m excited to complete all the work and really showcase Canada’s position in women’s wheelchair rugby.”
Labelle was unable to join the team in Calgary, as she was competing in a competition with the national development team – in pursuit of her ultimate goal of reaching the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris. But she can’t wait to write the new chapter with the women’s team and watch her teammates grow as players on the international stage.
“I want to develop everyone,” said Labelle.
Although the Women’s Cup is currently the only competition on the horizon for the women’s team, it could create momentum and create other opportunities. It is shaping up to be the biggest edition yet, which will take place the day after the International Women’s Day celebration on 8 March.
Todd hopes the Women’s Cup is just the beginning for the Canadian women’s program.
“I think there’s so much potential for women to grow in so many capacities across wheelchair rugby, from athletes to coaches and referees. It’s really exciting to see a whole women’s structure and system for our Canadian team,” Todd said.
“It’s incredible to be part of this movement.”
Wheelchair Rugby Canada’s investment in the women’s game for the Paris tournament can spur further growth, but continued support will be needed to ensure the team is a cornerstone moving forward.
“I would love to see our teams stick together and continue to have these opportunities. I think it will take the support of our governing body and our supporters around the country to push our momentum,” said Todd.
Canada will open its tournament against Great Britain on March 9 at 10 a.m. ET. The competition will be broadcast live on the French YouTube channel Wheelchair Rugby.
- Brianna Hennessy (3.5)
- Kaley Dugger (3.5)
- Julia Story (3.0)
- Jessica Kruger (2.5)
- Sophie Forest (2.0)
- Erika Schmutz (1.5)
- Kasey Aiello (1.5)
- Tiana Hesmert (1.5)
- Melanie Label (1.0)
- Ashley Munro (1.0)