Innovation and Inclusion in Sport: An Interview with Paralympian Zak Madell

At Petro-Canada, we believe in the transformative power of sport, for both individuals and communities.

We see it in the growth and development of the Canadian athletes and coaches we support through the Petro-Canada Fuelling Athlete and Coaching Excellence (FACE) grants. We feel it when we watch Canadians compete at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and all of Canada comes together to root for the athletes and coaches wearing the maple leaf.

This belief is one of the reasons that we’re excited about the theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (December 3): Transformative solutions for inclusive development - the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible and equitable world. In particular, the UN holds up sport as an exemplar case in innovation for disability inclusive development and a sector for innovation, employment and equity.

We wanted to hear from a Canadian athlete about how innovation has impacted their sport. Last year in our interview with Catherine Gosselin-Després, Executive Director of Sport at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, we learned about on-site repairs for athletes during the Paralympic Games, especially in the rough-and-tumble sport of wheelchair rugby (aka Murderball), so that seemed like a good place to start for a chat about innovation in sport. We were delighted to connect with Zak Madell, wheelchair rugby athlete and 3-time Paralympian.

When Zak was 10, he lost his fingers and legs to a septic staph infection. After his recovery, Zak first got involved in Para ice hockey, but had difficulty holding the stick well enough to play at a high level. Next, he was introduced to wheelchair basketball, which appealed to his competitive nature and his love of speed. Finally, he was recruited to wheelchair rugby in 2011 and has experienced a meteoric rise in the sport ever since. Zak has competed in 3 Paralympic Games (London, Rio and Tokyo) as well as several other international tournaments.

Zak, thank you so much for speaking with us today! Wondering if you can talk about how this year’s IDPD theme speaks to you? In particular, the UN holds up sport at an example of a sector which creates equity, employment and innovation for persons with disabilities. How has sport impacted your life?

My life would obviously look very different if I was not involved in sport. After I had my fingers and legs amputated at the age of 10, sport played a key role in rehabilitating both physically and more importantly mentally. Another advantage of getting involved in Para sport are the relationships that you develop over the years. For many having a disability can feel isolating at times. I know for myself that growing up it was difficult being one of the only people in my school with a physical disability. Through the sport community I met countless other athletes with disabilities that share both similar life experience as well as a passion for sport. 

Have there been innovations in your own sport of wheelchair rugby that have improved inclusion or equity?

We have seen a lot of innovation in the sport of wheelchair rugby since its inception in Winnipeg back in 1977. Originally the sport was played in heavy and cumbersome everyday wheelchairs. Fast forward 40+ years and we now see high performance, durable and lightweight devices that are specifically designed for the sport. These are usually custom fitted to the athlete depending on their level of function, with increased support and stability for athletes with limited core muscles, and custom frames designed to accommodate athletes with limb deficiencies. This has helped people with a wider range of disabilities to get involved in our sport, while the chairs allow them to compete at the highest level possible.

Any advice for persons with disabilities who are considering getting involved in sport?

There is a sport out there for everyone. However, sometimes you may have to try a few different ones to find the right fit for you. The first step is just coming out and trying them! There is no need to be nervous, or any expectations for you to be the next superstar Paralympian. Just go and enjoy yourself, and hopefully find a passion for a new sport that will create some amazing opportunities, introduce you to some great communities and will change your life in the best ways imaginable.

You've competed in 3 Paralympic Games. Do you have plans to compete in Paris?

Yes! That is my current plan. Before Tokyo I was unsure if I would continue the life of a high-performance athlete. However, I still have a burning passion for wheelchair rugby and the desire to bring home another Paralympic medal for my country. Also, the fact that the Tokyo games were delayed one year meant that it was only a 3-year cycle before Paris, and that made it feel like a more manageable commitment. 


Thank you, Zak! We really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. If you’d like to hear more from Zak (and you do because he is an inspirational speaker), you can tune in on December 5th for a Paralympic panel discussion on International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Zak will be joined by fellow Paralympians and members of the Paralympic community.

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