A ferocious player on the court and an unassuming man off of it, Garett Hickling will carry the Maple Leaf into Wednesday’s opening ceremonies of the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Hickling will represent Canada in Paralympic wheelchair rugby for the fifth time in his career. The 41-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., was named the Canadian team’s flagbearer Sunday.
“This makes me want to hold my head up high and smile hard,” Hickling said.
He’s intimidating on the court because of his aggression and power. Hickling has competed in every Paralympics that included wheelchair rugby, winning silver in 1996 and 2004 and bronze in 2008.
“He’s probably one of the more feared players in the world,” said his coach Kevin Orr. “I actually coached against him. I was the U.S. coach before I got involved with Canada and he was definitely a well-respected opponent when we played him.
“He’s such a humble man for all the accolades he has. He’s been MVP at Paralympic Games and at world championships. He’s a great representative of the team. That’s how we are on and off the court. When we’re on the court, we’re all business and ready to take care of that business, but when we’re off the court, we’re fun-loving guys.”
Canada’s 2012 Paralympic team is comprised of 145 athletes competing in 15 sports in London. The team’s goal is a top-eight finish in the overall gold-medal count. Canada finished seventh in Beijing four years ago with 19 gold.
Competition opens Thursday and concludes Sept. 9.
Canadian athletes to watch include swimmers Benoit Huot and Valerie Grand’Maison of Montreal and Summer Mortimer of Ancaster, Ont., wheelchair racers Michelle Stilwell of Nanoose Bay, B.C., and Diane Roy of Sherbrooke, Que., and cyclist Robbie Weldon from Thunder Bay, Ont.
Hickling will lead Canada against arch rivals Australia and United States in a bid for wheelchair rugby gold.
“That’s always on the top of the mind,” he said. “You always want to be the best and going for the gold is definitely something we’ve been training and working hard for.
“We’re definitely going for it. Definitely feel we’re in a position to win. If we play the way I know we can play, I don’t see any problem with us taking home the gold.”
His sport gained notoriety with the 2005 documentary film “Murderball,” which depicted the punishing nature of the sport and the heated rivalry between Canadians and the Americans. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award that year.
At the age of 16, Hickling and two friends were walking an unfamiliar B.C. trail late at night when they fell off a cliff. One of Hickling’s friends died and Hickling broke his neck in the 1987 incident.
About five years later, Hickling took up wheelchair rugby because he liked “hitting people.”
“You do suffer a few injuries now and then,” he acknowledged. “If you love something, you keep doing it.
“I’ve got 12 great teammates. We push each other hard, we train hard and bug each other a bit and it just keeps us going.”
Hickling was the lone member of the rugby team at the pep rally and flag raising at the athletes’ village. He’d come from Leeds where the rugby team is training. The rugby team arrives in London on Tuesday.
Hickling moved to southern Ontario recently to train with a few teammates on the national squad as well as develop the sport in that area.
“A great guy, a great person to represent Canada as a flag bearer,” said wheelchair basketball player and four-time Paralympian Dave Durepos of Fredericton.
“He’s still the best in his sport at what he does. Not only that, but he brings everything back home to Canada. He helps the young guys out. He’s going to leave his legacy back home.”