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Bold: Sudbury's ParaSports athletes enjoy the great outdoors

'We take advantage of the fact that we live in a beautiful part of the world'

When it comes to participating in sports, everyone seems to have their favourite activity, but in Northern Ontario you might be able to tip the scales in favour of those things you can do outdoors.

Thomas Merritt, a professor at Laurentian University, is the head coach for the ParaSports program at the Northern Water Sports Centre in Sudbury and believes that because Northerners can more easily get out into nature, it is something they truly take advantage of.

ParaSports are adaptive sports generally played by people with a disability.

"Yeah absolutely,” he said. “And we take advantage of the fact that we live in a beautiful part of the world. We row on Ramsey Lake. It's an amazing place. It's definitely a recruiting tool. You know, if I say to athletes, would you like to come out and sit in a gym and we're gonna run a machine for a couple of hours? You know, sure, we'll get you in shape, and we'll help you get more active. But why don't you come out Sunday mornings, and we'll get on the water and row in a beautiful part of the world. So we absolutely take advantage of that," Merritt said.

He added that athletes involved in local ParaSports can also take advantage of the outdoors in winter.

"The nice thing about the rowing and the ParaNordic skiing is we do have athletes that do both. So they come out and they row in the summers and then they ski in the winters. So we do have almost year round access. And in the ski program, they do summer training.  So you can do roller-ski stuff from a ParaNordic perspective, as well as a typical skiing perspective," Merritt explained.

Another positive side about ParaSports athletes getting more involved in outdoor pursuits locally is that it helps foster a growing acceptance of ParaSports and the importance of accessibility, said Merritt. 

A good example is the level of support in Sudbury for different ParaSports programs, he said.

"When I played wheelchair basketball, about half of the people who came out to play were able-bodied," Merritt said. 

He said if not enough ParaSport players showed up, other able-bodied players would get in wheelchairs just to participate. As a coach, Merritt is also able-bodied.

"So I started playing wheelchair basketball, maybe the second year that I was coaching. There is a lot of acceptance of trying to support everybody in Sudbury. I think it's one of the really beautiful things about our community," he said. 

Merritt said many of the volunteers who help out on a regular basis are those who felt they owed something to their favourite sport because it gave them something on a personal basis. 

"You know, depending on what your sport is, you often feel a certain gratitude or debt to that sport. Rowing was a big part of me. Becoming an adult, I started rowing in university, it changed my life, like substantially changed who I am as a person to have been part of rowing. So when I coach, I'm trying to give other athletes that same opportunity."

Merritt said he has been involved in local ParaSports for the past 15 years, and although there are times he felt he was scrambling to find volunteer helpers, Sudbury always came through. 

"And we always have from 15 years, and every year we found fantastic volunteers that come out and dedicate their time to making sure these athletes get on the water. And sometimes it's a parent or a significant other. And sometimes it's just people that are committed and they're like, hey, this is pretty awesome. How do I help out?”

Len Gillis is a reporter at Bold is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.