Melanie Labelle is helping Canada break new ground Thursday.
The 37-year-old from Saint-Hubert, Que., is a member of the Canadian team at the Women’s Cup in Paris, which marks Canada’s first foray into women’s international wheelchair rugby play.
Wheelchair rugby traditionally consists of mixed teams. Labelle was the lone woman on the Canadian squad that finished runner-up to the United States at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
The Paris event, created in 2015, is the only international competition for women, according to Wheelchair Rugby Canada. The tournament, in its third edition, features teams from Britain and France, as well as entries made up of individual players from all over the world.
Taking place immediately after International Women’s Day, it runs through Saturday at Gymnase Emile Anthoine in Paris, with Canada opening play Thursday against Britain.
“This opportunity is a testament to both the growth of our program across the country and the level of athleticism of our female athletes [in a predominantly male sport],” Canada coach Kendra Todd said in a statement. “I firmly believe we will put Canada on the map for excellence in women’s wheelchair rugby.”
The women’s game is on the rise. Last year’s world championships in Veijle, Denmark, saw a record 13 women compete, including three on Australia’s gold medal squad.
Britain is the reigning Paralympic champion. The U.S. won silver in Tokyo with Japan beating Australia for the bronze.
Canada finished fifth at both the Paralympics and the 2022 world championships.
Labelle suffered a spinal cord Injury in March 2016 rehearsing an aerial move in preparation for the Canadian Swing (Dance) Championships.
Wheelchair rugby has been an important part of her life since.
“I was a very active person before my injury. I’ve played many team sports,” she said. “So me trying to pick up a sport post-injury was natural. Also I wanted to have a child’s mind – to be able to discover my body and my function by playing and making sure I don’t focus on what I don’t have, but I let my brain figure it out by playing.
“And that’s what rugby brought me.”
She was introduced to the sport during her rehabilitation when a local club team, the Montreal Machines, came by the Lucie-Bruneau Rehabilitation Centre to do a demonstration.
Labelle eventually joined the team and represented Quebec at the 2017 Canadian Wheelchair Rugby Championships. In March, 2019, she was invited to join the national team program.
In addition to dance, she played soccer through university and also took part in basketball, diving and volleyball among other sports.
The injury forced Labelle to “reorganize” her home and “new life.”
“And wheelchair rugby was bringing me answers to that,” she said.
In addition to Peru, the sport has taken her to Japan, Czechia and around the U.S. and Canada. And now France.
“It is making me see the world. But also the challenge of travelling with a disability and figuring it out. It’s not easy. I come back very tired,” she said with a chuckle. “But now I’m a resource and other people ask me questions. ‘How do you travel? How do you break those barriers?’”
Wheelchair rugby is played on a regulation hardwood basketball court using a standard volleyball.
To be eligible to play, individuals must have a disability that affects both the arms and the legs – but be physically capable of propelling a manual wheelchair with their arms.
Athletes with neurological disabilities must have at least three limbs with limited functions while those with non-neurological disabilities must have limited function in all four limbs.
The majority of wheelchair rugby players have spinal cord injuries that have resulted in full or partial paralysis of the legs and partial paralysis of the arms. Other disability groups represented include polio, cerebral palsy, some forms of muscular dystrophy, dysmelia, amputations and other neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
While it is a contact sport, the wheelchair absorbs most of the on-court abuse, said Labelle.
“For sure if you have some energy left [after the game], you didn’t do your job well because you have to leave it out on the court,” she added.
All players have a classification – a measure of their functional physical ability – that ranges from 0.5 (least function) to 3.5 (most function).
Teams consist of up to 12 players, with each side fielding four players on the floor at one time. These players must add up to 8.0 classification points per team. Sides are allowed an additional 0.5 points for each woman who is on the court.
Labelle’s initial classification was 0.5, a rare class that was an asset to the national team.
“So for them it was ‘If you like the sport, if you want to pick it up, let’s throw you in shark waters and see if you can swim,’” said Labelle. “And I was up for the challenge.”
Labelle’s current classification is 1.0, due to changes in speed and strength. It means a new, expanded role on the team.
Labelle trains daily, mostly for her disability and pain management.
“If I didn’t play sport, I would be training every day or doing something to keep my body healthy,” she said. “Because my disability takes a lot (out) of my body. It’s kind of use it or lose it. I don’t have a lot of muscles. I don’t have a lot of function. If I train it well and I make sure that my body is healthy and ready, then it can tackle the day.”
Labelle, who has partial arm strength, relies on her biceps to push the wheelchair.
The game consists of four eight-minute quarters. A goal is scored when a player carries the ball across the opposing team’s goal-line.
There is plenty of strategy, with teams taking a page from basketball in setting up pick plays to allow ball-carriers a clear path.
“It is tactical. That’s what I like,” Labelle said. “I like to know that I can’t do it all but if I figure it out, if I figure (out) the tactics, there’s a lot that could be accomplished out there. And it’s a never-ending learning moment for me.”
The sport, then known as Murderball, was invented in 1977 in Winnipeg by a group of quadriplegic athletes looking for an alternative to wheelchair basketball. Wheelchair rugby was officially recognized in 1994 by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) as a Paralympic sport
Wheelchair rugby was included as a demonstration sport in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games. Two years later, Toronto hosted the second IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship.
According to Wheelchair Rugby Canada, there are currently more than 40 countries that actively participate in the sport or who are developing programs.
Canada Roster for Women’s Cup (with classification in brackets)
Brianna Hennessy (3.5), Ontario; Kaley Dugger (3.5), U.S.; Julia Hanes (3.0), B.C.; Jessica Kruger (2.5), B.C.; Sophie Forest (2.0) Quebec; Erika Schmutz (1.5), Ontario; Kasey Aiello (1.5), Alberta; Tiana Hesmert (1.5), B.C.; Melanie Labelle (1.0), Quebec; Ashley Munro (1.0), Alberta.
Coach: Kendra Todd.