When Justine Wilmot decided to take her first spin in a racing wheelchair at the Whitby Abilities Centre, she couldn’t have asked for more elite company.
Sporting a red London 2012 Paralympics jacket and a haircut that looks just as fast as he does, Justine’s first guide around the oval was Josh Cassidy, winner of 75 medals and a world record marathon time.
He and fellow Paralympian Rachael Burrows were two special guests at an April 28 Try-It Camp, part of a new program that aims to recruit more people like Justine into track and field para-sports.
“I just took her here to try it out and see how it is,” said Justine’s mother. “She loves it.”
Run by Athletics Ontario, the new program aims to grow para-athletic sports across Ontario by concentrating on two hubs: London and the GTA.
Back in the Beach, Craig Blackman is head coach of I Be Fast, a Beach track and field club that will join two other clubs – the Etobicoke Track & Field Club and the Durham Dragons – to build the GTA hub.
Before he started coaching, Blackman ran at several international games, including the 400-metre relay in the 1972 Munich Olympics. What he started as a small track club for his kids and those of his sprinter friend Charlie Francis quickly grew to include a full team of all ages and abilities.
“Everybody runs together,” he said, speaking at an another Try-It Camp held at Variety Village. “After the first 20 minutes, they’re just one of the gang.”
Blackman says he enjoys coaching able-bodied and disabled athletes as one team not only because it makes for a bigger, friendlier group, but also because training in heats and seeded events pushes everyone to work a little harder.
Sprinter Cindy Blunt agrees. A 52-year-old sprinter who holds a 100-metre record in her ability class, Blunt is a long-time member of the Durham Dragons, where everyone else on her team is able-bodied.
“They learn and I learn,” she says. “My coach teams me up against them and I just chase them down. It improves my times.”
Blunt says she welcomes the idea of a GTA hub for para-athletes, and recommends that anyone interested comes out and gives it a try.
“You get to travel for one, and you get to make friends,” she said. “You get to try things you wouldn’t normally get to do.”
For Blunt, that meant running the Olympic torch through Nathan Phillips Square in 2010. Thirty years into her running career, she is training up to qualify for a world competition in France this July.
Kayla Cornale, para-athletics coordinator for Athletics Ontario, says the Try-It camps are open to everyone, including parents and teachers interested in learning more about para-sports. Cornale also noted that equipment is no barrier.
“You don’t need the Ferrari of racing to start,” she said, noting that both Cassidy and Burrows started training for races using their day chairs. Cornale also said a lot of first-timers will likely try a few sports before they find their favourite.
Whether new recruits play para-sports just for fun or go on to a competitive level is tough to guess – something that Burrows found out firsthand.
Even after competing in the Pan Am Games and a world championship, Burrows said she never expected to make the London Paralympics last year.
“When it happened, I was like, ‘Oh, okay—here we go!’”
The next Try It camp, which is free of charge, will be held on May 25 from 8 to 10 a.m. at Birchmount Stadium’s track. For more information on the Try It camps, email firstname.lastname@example.org.