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Canada wheelchair basketball teams get time in the sun

The national wheelchair basketball teams are major forces in the Paralympic world, and therefore were targeted to the funding tune of $1.4-million by the Own the Podium program last year.

Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail/paul darrow The Globe and Mail

At first blush, it sounds rather self-indulgent for Canada's wheelchair basketball teams to find a spot for a selection camp in the Nevada sun next week, as temperatures at home drop and snow mires tires.

But sending the tax-funded group of Canadians to Las Vegas makes financial and logical sense, Wheelchair Basketball Canada says.

The national wheelchair basketball teams are major forces in the Paralympic world, and therefore were targeted to the funding tune of $1.4-million by the Own the Podium program last year. They also received $368,000 from Sport Canada.

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WBC decided to watch its pennies by, for the first time, staging the selection camps for both the men and women in the same location, having support staff and equipment travel only once, rather than twice.

But with a force of 60 people, finding a location in Canada in winter (spinning a wheelchair through a foot of snow has no appeal), and with university basketball programs running full-steam, proved difficult.

WBC wanted to stage the selection camp as early as possible this season because it's a Paralympic year, with the London Games set to start July 27 (the Paralympics begin Aug. 29). The women's team will centralize in Winnipeg in June, in further preparation for London.

Last year, the association staged a small women's training camp in Winnipeg, but because many team members live and work in United States, about half of the team and staff were snowed in at Chicago.

"In a twist of irony, they got stranded in the States because of weather, rather than the other way around," WBC spokesman Jody Kingsbury said. "At the end of the day, it ended up costing us.

"By the time they finally arrived, half the week was gone, not to mention, the women were dead tired. Because this is a Paralympic year, it's important to have everyone at the camp in the best shape to perform and to evaluate them."

This time around, WBC hunted for a location where the weather would be more consistent (Las Vegas temperature tends to be about 16 C and sunny this time of year), with a venue large enough (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), a hotel within wheeling distance of the venue and a major airport nearby that allowed as many direct flights as possible. (They're getting free meals thrown in, to boot.)

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WBC executive director Wendy Gittens says the cost to stage the dual training camps in Las Vegas is comparable to what it would be in Vancouver, for example. It's less costly to fly athletes within the United States, she said, and the dollar exchange rate is negligible these days.

The 18 men and 19 women who will travel to "The Entertainment Capital of the World" for the camps running from Sunday to Jan. 13, are scattered across the globe.

Five men play professionally in Europe on various teams. Three women play for the Trier Dolphins in Germany (and at least three more are joining them their after the selection camp). Four women are currently enrolled and play for the University of Alabama.

Some 16 of the 24 national-team athletes are pursing full-time training opportunities outside of Canada.

"They have semi-pro wheelchair basketball leagues in Europe," Kingsbury said. "We don't have anything comparable in Canada. We have more recreational leagues."

The Canadian men were the silver medalists at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, won gold in the two Games previous, and have earned medals at five of the past six consecutive world championships.

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The women's team won three consecutive Paralympic gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000, and bronze in 2004. They have also won medals at six consecutive world championships.

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