One by one, they wheeled off the court, fighting back tears in a losing battle.
Canada’s women’s wheelchair basketball players had their dreams of a Paralympic medal dashed — again — with a 78-60 quarter-final loss to the Netherlands on Tuesday.
And now Canada, once so thoroughly dominant in the global wheelchair game, will leave the Paralympics without a medal in the event for the first time in nearly 30 years.
“It’s not a good feeling. It happened, the same thing in London (in 2012). . . It’s just a pretty awful feeling,” said Cindy Ouellet, pausing to gulp back tears. “Sorry.”
The 27-year-old from Quebec City scored 20 points, while Janet McLachlan of North Vancouver, B.C., added 18 to lead the defending world champions, who trailed just 19-18 after the first quarter, but went into the dressing room trailing 42-29 at halftime, a deficit they would never quite make up.
Canada’s men’s team, who watched on with gloomy faces, fared no better in Rio. The defending Paralympic champions went 0-5 in the preliminary round, and will face Algeria for 11th place on Wednesday morning.
The results are a big blow to a program that hasn’t gone without a Paralympic medal since 1988 in Seoul. Since the women won their first of three straight Paralympic gold medals in 1992, they’ve boasted six titles between the two teams.
The rest of the world, said women’s coach Bill Johnson, has simply caught up.
“I think back to my first Games in 2004, and on the women’s side there were two (teams, figuratively), there was Canada and the U.S., and that was it,” Johnson said. “The growth has been incredible the last few years, and it means that we have to keep working to keep up with the rest of the world, and that’s what sport is all about.”
The growth is both a blessing and curse for Canada. McLachlan said she wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I came from able-bodied sport where the competition was always really high, and that is, I think, what I love about sport,” said McLachlan, who won two Canadian university titles with the University of Victoria before suffering a devastating knee injury playing rugby.
The Canadian women also boast four straight world titles, between 1994 and 2006, and are coming off a victory at the 2014 world tournament in Toronto.
They would pull to within seven points in the third quarter Tuesday at Rio Olympic Arena, but a Dutch buzzer-beater to end the period gave the Netherlands a 60-49 advantage heading into the fourth.
Ouellet, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 12 that left her with no feeling or movement in her left leg, wheeled painfully to the sideline as the clock ticked down. She’d dislocated her knee.
McLachlan said there were positives to take away from the loss.
“I honestly do feel like we left everything on the court, and it’s actually the most important thing. If we had regrets, then we could hang our heads,” McLachlan said. “But to lose on a day to a better team, it happens. It’s sports, and it’s why we play this, because if we just won all the time, it wouldn’t be as exciting, it wouldn’t be as interesting and it wouldn’t mean as much.
“Yes, it’s crushing today. But we’ll take the time, we’ll shed a few tears I think, and. . . we’ll regroup for the next Games.”
The players gathered at their bench after the cruel final buzzer sounded for “high fives and ‘good job’ and ‘head up,“’ said McLachlan, who plays in a pro wheelchair league in Germany. “Still words of encouragement.”
“This is such a great group of girls and everyone has been so positive. It would be so easy after a loss like that to hang our heads and point fingers, and no one is doing it, everyone is being positive, and that’s fantastic. It means so much to be part of a team like that.”
Canada went 3-1 in the preliminary round, the team’s one loss coming against Britain.
The Canadian men, led by flag-bearer David Eng, were expected to have a tough time in Rio after losing half of their roster after the London Olympics. The biggest blow was the retirement of Patrick Anderson, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.
They won gold in three of the last four Paralympic Games.Report Typo/Error