Meet the Intimidator.
He throws heat, has a rugby mentality and a tricked-out wheelchair to rattle his opponents.
Marco Dispaltro is world champion and, likely, the most resented man in wheelchair boccia, one of the 15 sports at Toronto’s upcoming Parapan Am Games.
It also takes him 20 minutes just to sit up in bed some mornings.
Dispaltro has Becker muscular dystrophy. It’s a degenerative condition that has taken away his triceps and biceps after severely weakening his abdominal, shoulder, leg and many other muscles.
Those deteriorating muscles ended Dispaltro’s career in wheelchair rugby and then wheelchair tennis. The Montrealer moved to a new sport whenever his condition worsened.
Nothing, though, has diminished his will to win. Which he does. A lot. The 47-year-old started boccia in 2010 and has been ranked No. 1 in his classification in the world for more than a year. He won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympics.
But don’t waste his time with patronizing platitudes.
“Don’t call me an inspiration. That’s one of the things I really hate,” he says.
“So many times somebody at the airport will look at the wheelchair and say, ‘What do you do?’ I’ll say I play wheelchair sports and within 10 seconds I’m an inspiration for them? What the hell? They don’t know me. I could be the worst human being in the world and I’m already an inspiration?
“Screw inspiration and give me perspiration.”
The wheelchair doesn’t mean this is about participation ribbons.
Dispaltro is out for gold and he’ll do almost anything to get it.
He uses elaborately choreographed pre-game intimidation techniques — theatrics that include whipping balls at his coach — frame-by-frame video analysis of his shots and a souped-up $10,000 chair with spiderweb themed wheels to dominate boccia, a derivative of bocce for the physically disabled that is played with leather balls.
“In the beginning, I thought it was a gentleman’s sport but it’s not a gentleman’s sport. If anybody can get an advantage, they’re going to get it. If somebody can intimidate another athlete, they will,” says Dispaltro.
“Off the court, I’m really nice but once the game starts, you want to win and you’re going to do pretty much whatever you can to win the game.”
Including, Dispaltro learned early, breaking wind.
“When I started in the game, I was always releasing (my throws) at the same time, after three pendulums (arm swings),” Dispaltro recounts. “So people I was facing knew when I would release the ball and they’d let out a big sigh when I was ready to throw it. One guy even farted. On command, you know. Every time I was on my backswing and about to release the ball, there’d be a fart.”
“One fart and you, say, ‘All right, stuff happens.’ But after 15 balls and constant farts at exactly the time you’re about to release the ball, that’s impressive.”
Once, before a world championship match, a brash Slovak opponent tried to psych out Dispaltro.
“Before the games, the referee gives you the opportunity to verify each other’s equipment so (the Slovak) grabs one of my, it’s always funny to say, but he grabs one of my balls and starts really squeezing it hard. And some of these balls are a little fragile,” explains Dispaltro.
“I just went ballistic on him. The referee eventually came over to see what was going on. I was still yelling at this guy. We showed up on the court and you could already see the game was lost for him. You don’t mess with another man’s balls.”
You can’t intimidate the Intimidator, the nickname he has earned on the circuit.
“When other athletes try to take his focus off the game, it’s a mistake,” says his coach Cesar Nicolai. “When that happens, he comes on the court to destroy the other guy.”
Dispaltro was No. 2 in the world in the BC4 class — the least disabled of the four boccia classifications — just one year after taking up the sport and he knows some opponents begrudge his rapid rise, his attitude and his “crazy” chair; a fancy, red-and-white custom painted ride made from aircraft aluminum and fitted to his body.
“I know (the other athletes) have chair envy,” he chortles.
“It’s lovely that some of them think I’m a prick. Most people, when they’re angry, don’t play that good.”
Dispaltro, funny and charming off the court, enjoys the infamy and success that he knows can’t last forever. Though he pays close attention to his diet and exercise, and wears tight compression shirts so opponents are instantly aware of his work ethic, he knows his body will continue to breakdown from the condition that was diagnosed when he was 14.
In the same way he moved on from rugby and tennis, Dispaltro is prepared to adjust his sporting life again.
“Eventually, if I get to the point where I can’t throw any more in bocce, there is another division where you play with ramps,” he says. “You’ve got an assistant with you that places the ball on a ramp, then you have to physically push it with either a headpointer or, if you have enough power, with your hands. There’s always something out there.
“I see it as a challenge. Losing function, a lot of people would say, ‘Oh my God, that must be so terrible.’ But for me, it just gives me an opportunity to try different stuff.”
“I’m still going to push myself. I’m still going to do the things I love.”