At twice the age of most of his rivals, Marco Dispaltro likes to think of himself as the Gordie Howe of wheelchair sports.
And to think doctors once told him he likely wouldn’t live to see 40.
The 48-year-old boccia player will carry Canada’s flag into Friday’s opening ceremony of the Parapan American Games. He reflected Wednesday on a lifetime of scoffing at doctors, and doing things his own way.
“Gordie Howe, he’s been a legend for so many years and he played until he was 50,” Dispaltro said. “Then you look at people Chris Chelios that played hockey for a long time, Teemu Selanne. . . there’s still life for us even past 40.
“When you look at most of my competitors, they’re in their mid-20s. So for me, it’s always a motivating factor that the old guy can still perform, and keep the young wolves at bay.”
Josh Dueck, who carried Canada’s flag in the closing ceremonies at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics after skiing to gold and silver there, presented the flag to Dispaltro, wrapping it around the boccia player’s shoulders.
Dispaltro, a resident of St-Jerome, Que., was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a teenager. He took up wheelchair rugby — better known as Murderball — when he was 25, then switched to wheelchair tennis, and because of the degenerative nature of his disability, now plays boccia. He entered the 2015 season ranked No. 1 in the world in his classification.
“The doctors told me ‘Marco, your life expectancy is not going to be very long,’ but I just scoffed at that,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do, I was passionate about it, and I’m going to keep being passionate about sports. Even if I retire, there’s a legion of kids out there that want to play sports, and sometimes you don’t even know that it exists out there for you.”
Dispaltro said it was “happenstance” that brought him to wheelchair sports.
“I got a call, ‘Why don’t you come out and watch these guys that play a contact sport?“’ he said. “‘Contact sport in a wheelchair? Come on.’ But I remember it was a December day, I opened the door and I could see on the horizon that these guys were just smashing into each other, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is for me.’ It was love at first sight for me.
“The best thing that happened for me in rugby is when you hit somebody hard enough, they tumble out of their chair. So that was great, that was a great way for me to start off my sports career, because I always liked aggressive sport, and rugby was right up that alley.”
If rugby is all muscle and clanging metal, boccia is strategy and mind games, Dispaltro said. He likes to stare down his competitors. In the call room before games, he’ll chuck balls as hard as he can at his coach. It bothers the other players.
“The other athletes are like ‘What’s going on here, what’s wrong with these guys?’ You want to have that edge going into games,” he said.
He compares boccia to golf or curling. Strategically similar to lawn bowling, boccia is played indoors on a flat, smooth surface. The objective is to throw, kick, or use an assistive device to propel leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball known as the jack.
Dispaltro is gunning for gold after winning silver in singles at the 2011 Parapan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was a bronze medallist in mixed pairs at the 2012 London Paralympics.
It’s one of 15 sports at the Games, which begin Friday and run through Aug. 15.
The Games are a rare chance for para athletes to shine on a home stage, and hopefully will inspire young Canadians with disabilities to get involved in sports, Dispaltro said.
Asked what his message would be to young people, he said: “Try stuff. For me, when I was young, people didn’t really encourage me to do stuff, I had to do stuff on my own. But for me the biggest message I have for the kids out there is just try stuff. And even if you fall a couple of times, just pick yourself up and do it again. And for the parents as well: let your kids try stuff. Don’t be afraid.”
Some 1,600 athletes from North, Central and South America will participate in the competition, which comes on the heels of the Pan Am Games.