Canadian sledge hockey defenceman Raymond “Ray Train” Grassi is explaining the art, science, and pure joy of a good stiff bodycheck. When you hammer somebody low into the boards at Vancouver’s Thunderbird Arena, as he’s done with regularity since the start of the 2010 Paralympic Games, it’s like hitting a brick wall, says Team Canada’s most physical sledge hockey player. “So there’s a bit of a cool part to that.” Then there’s the fact that Grassi’s titanium sledge is shorter and more manoeuvrable than most, since he’s a double-leg amputee. “I have that advantage,” the 27-year-old Windsor auto parts salesman says. “I don’t have my legs in front of me.”
If Ray Train says having no legs is an advantage, one is not apt to argue. He bench-presses 435 lb. He is 235 lb. of muscle. Add another 20 lb., off the ice, when he straps on his artificial legs. On the ice is where he flies, where his birth defect holds no currency. “That’s one of the great things I like about sport, especially about disabled sport,” he said at the end of a high-energy practice last week. “If I’m an amputee and someone else is a paraplegic, you strap onto the sled and we’re all even. It definitely brings out all the things we have inside.”
What all 1,350 athletes share at these Paralympics—on the ski hills and cross-country trails of Whistler and the curling and hockey rinks in Vancouver—is a ferocious competitive drive and a refusal to accept limits. Every athlete has a compelling backstory of challenges overcome.
Grassi’s teammate, forward Todd Nicholson, 41, became a paraplegic in a 1987 car crash the night of his high school prom. That ended hopes of an NHL career, but it hasn’t stopped the married father of twins from competing in duathlons, triathlons and marathons; in wheelchair basketball and tennis—and now his fifth Paralympics in sledge hockey. To wear the Team Canada jersey is “an unbelievable honour,” he says. “It’s really opening people’s eyes to the obstacles that people have overcome and the speeds that they’re coming,” he says. “The alpine guys are coming down the hill at 125 to 135 km/h.” Hockey pucks can fly at more than 100 km/h. “It’s a fast game,” says Nicholson. “It’s very physical.”
Vancouver’s outdoor Olympic cauldron has been reignited for the 10 days of these Games. The public party has resumed on a scale that may be modest by Olympic standards, but is unprecedented for the Paralympics. Whistler’s enthusiastic crowds were rewarded Monday with Canada’s first home-grown gold medal performances: Brian McKeever and his brother and guide Robin on the 20-km visually impaired cross-country ski course and Lauren Woolstencroft in slalom. In Vancouver, every sledge hockey game involving the Canadians and the gold medal curling final sold out weeks ago.
Last Friday, B.C. Place was jammed for the opening ceremonies, which included an inspired salute to two of B.C.’s favourite sons, the late Terry Fox, and spinal cord advocate and former Paralympic medallist Rick Hansen. “Sport is a reflection of Canada’s values. We believe in an accessible and inclusive country for all,” says Hansen, who marks the 25th anniversary of his 40,000-km worldwide wheelchair journey on March 21, the day the Paralympics close. “This is a fantastic thing that Canada has done.”
If Canada’s hockey rivals get past Ray Train and his buddies, they have to contend with goalie Paul Rosen, 49, who had a leg amputated 10 years ago after a horribly infected knee replacement almost killed him. Rosen was once a gifted baseball catcher, and a good thing, too. Strapped into his sledge, his head sits below the top bar of the goal. “Your chest protector,” he tells stand-up goalies, “is my face.” Even with a full mask he’s had several concussions and lost nine teeth.
He dismisses such heroics, preferring to talk about his recent work with Soldier On, a program introducing injured Canadian soldiers to sport. His message is the one he discovered at 39: “Through sport you can have another life.” He’s been amazed at their resilience. “You know what, it’s only a leg,” he tells soldiers. “Once you get over that, you realize life can be as good or better then before.”
That’s the larger lesson of the Paralympics, he says. Once the flame goes out, he predicts, “the average Canadian who is disabled will be looked at a little differently.”