Students gain paralympian perspective

Students at Bernard Elementary tried wheelchair basketball on Monday to learn about inclusive sports and how to overcome obstacles.

Students at Bernard Elementary School had the opportunity to try wheelchair basketball on Monday

The sound of bouncing basketballs resonated in the Bernard Elementary gym on Monday. But this was no ordinary game of b-ball.

The kids were trying out the challenging, eye-opening, fun game of wheelchair basketball.

On behalf of the B.C. Wheelchair Basketball Society (BCWBS), the inclusive ‘Let’s Play’ initiative brought in nearly 20 wheelchairs for the elementary students to try. The provincial program promotes integrated and inclusive play, sport and fun for children of all abilities.

Paralympian Marni Abbott-Peter and Nadine Barbisan from the BCWBS were there to teach the kids about wheelchair basketball and a broader lesson about accessibility, too.

They demonstrated the differences between a sports wheelchair and an average “day chair,” and provided a quick how-to course on wheelchair posture, movement and safety.

Bernard Elementary vice-principal David Wellingham invited Abbott-Peter and the Let’s Play group in effort to provide an unforgettable learning experience for the kids.

“Like every school, we have our students who have a range of challenges. This [program] was a way to spread important messages to the students and to the community,” Wellingham explained.

Most important of which being, “when we set goals for ourselves, we can achieve them. Regardless of the obstacles that we face,” he said.

Although it took some practice, the kids quickly got the hang of things.

Grade ones were racing around the gym playing tag. Grade six students got nothing but net by the end of the session.

Wheelchair basketball provided another added benefit, a level playing field.

“Regardless of your athletic ability, everyone is starting from square one,” Wellingham said. Each student is trying something new, experiencing the same challenges.

One challenge of which was learning that, when the ball falls out of reach, you can’t just stand up to retrieve it.

Though Abbott-Peter is now a B.C. Sports Hall of Fame inductee and multiple gold-winning paralympian in wheelchair basketball, she had a long and challenging journey to get there.

From youth to age 18, she was skiing competitively. Unfortunately, a traumatic fall on the slopes left her with a severed spinal cord.

While in rehabilitation, learning to live her life without the use of her legs, she met fellow paralympian and activist Rick Hansen. “He told me all about wheelchair sports and the paralympic games, and all of the opportunities that were still available to me,” she said to the young students.

Training in the new sport was frustrating for Abbott-Peter at times, but her dedication brought her to her first paralympic games in ’92, where her team won gold.

“When I was on that podium, I wasn’t thinking to myself ‘Gee, I wish I could ski,’ I was just really proud to have accomplished this amazing goal.”

What initially appeared as a major bump in Abbott-Peter’s road opened an array of incredible opportunities. Learning to adapt, persevering, and recognizing those unexpected opportunities were key lessons of the day.

Local wheelchair basketball player Ben Hagkull shared his story and demonstrated his skills on the court as well.

Afflicted with spina bifida from birth, Hagkull has been playing wheelchair basketball since only six years of age. Now 16 years old, he represented B.C. in the Canada Winter Games in February and is on track for the junior national team.

If you want to give wheelchair basketball a shot, visit the Cheam Leisure Centre on Monday evenings from 7:30 to 9 p.m for the Junior Program, beginning January 12. Learn more and register at

Learn more about the Let’s Play program at


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