Ball gets rolling at Canadian Boccia Championships

Published on March 29, 2014
Josh Vander Vies throws a ball at the Canadian
Boccia Championships Friday in St. John’s. To see video from the event, go to
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

By Mackenzie Scrimshaw
The Telegram
Teams representing five provinces met at the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Centre in St. John’s Friday morning for the opening ceremonies of the Canadian Boccia Championships.

Athletes from British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec are vying for 16 positions on the Canadian boccia team.

Depending on Canada’s standings internationally, between eight and 12 of these players will advance to the 2014 Boccia International Sports Federation (BISFed) Boccia World Championships in Beijing, China, in September. Some might even go on to compete at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Two Paralympians, Marco Dispaltro and Josh Vander Vies, were there Friday. Together, they won bronze medals in BC4 Pairs at the London 2012 Paralympics.

This weekend, however, Dispaltro and Vander Vies are competing individually for Quebec and Ontario, respectively.

“Marco and I are great friends and good competitors,” said Vander Vies. “We can demolish each other in singles and then come back and play well together internationally.

“We just live up to the challenge. We push each other.”

Vander Vies, whose arms stopped developing beyond the elbow, and who has no legs, uses two throwing styles while playing boccia.

“I either hold it between my two arms and throw with my torso, or I hold it on one arm and roll it down my arm and flick it.”

Like Vander Vies, Dispaltro is eager to face off against his former, and future, teammate.

“I love beating him,” said Dispaltro. “He’s such an intense competitor, as well, so every time we play, it’s a very good battle.”

This is Dispaltro’s fourth appearance at the Canadian Boccia Championships. He’s clinch­ed the three previous national titles and is looking to earn another this weekend.

“I want to go four for four.”

Dispaltro, who has a congenital disability, throws the boccia ball using an underhand pendulum swing.

“It’s a sport that’s so cool because there’s not that many sports out there for us,” he says. “Most of us, our disabilities are pretty strong, are pretty intense.”

Before boccia, Dispaltro played rugby and, when he became too weak for that sport, switched to playing tennis. Then his condition worsened again, leading him to take up boccia.

Dispaltro expects to be able to continue playing boccia for awhile.

“If I become too weak to throw the ball, at least I can throw, I can play with a ramp.”

This is the case for Boccia Class 3 (BC3) players, who typically have cerebral palsy and use a ramp to launch the boccia ball.

Ashley Mercer, a provincial coach for Team Newfoundland and Labrador, coaches 18 athletes with varying levels of ability.

“It is difficult,” she said. “Everyone is affected differently, so it really depends on their skill level, their strengths.”

The team identifies each player’s strengths and assigns them a role, from blocking to busting, accordingly.

Boccia is played between two teams, or individuals, in a contest that tests the aim and strength of its players. The opponents throw leather balls, roughly the size of baseballs, in an attempt to land the closest to a white target ball called the jack. It’s similar in concept to curling.

Perhaps surprisingly, the team whose player has the weaker first shot will play its remaining five balls first. Then it’s the other team’s turn. There are four ends in each game.

Blocking is a strategy used to obstruct the other team’s view of or access to the target ball, and busting is the counter strategy used to break through the balls to reach the jack.

Kristyn Collins, who plays for Newfoundland and Labrador, hopes to “improve my skills, try to earn more points, just try to have fun.” 

Collins, now in her third year of play, enjoys the competitive side of the game and stresses the importance of communication during team play.

Her teammates include Lois Martin and Michael Mercer, who were named to the Canadian national training program. Mercer trains up to 25 hours each week and has thrown about 17,000 balls since the program began Jan. 6.

The 18 local athletes will compete, in teams and individually, among a total of 120 boccia players through to the finals on Sunday afternoon.