Canada's women's wheelchair rugby team set to debut at Women's Cup in Paris
A historic new chapter for Canadian wheelchair rugby is set to unfold in Paris next week, as Canada is sending a women's team to compete internationally for the first time ever.
The 10-woman roster will make its debut at the third edition of the Women's Cup, running March 9-11 at the Centre Sportif Émile Anthoine in central Paris.
The tournament, held every two years, is the lone international event for women on the wheelchair rugby calendar. It will also feature a squad from Great Britain, along with three teams compiled of players from across Europe, the United States, Australia and South Korea.
Wheelchair rugby is a mixed-gender sport at the Paralympic level, but there has been major growth in the number of female players in recent years. The 2022 world championships in Denmark featured a record 13 women, including three on the champion Australian team.
For Canadian women's head coach Kendra Todd, the 2023 Women's Cup marks a major opportunity to grow the women's game back home.
"I think it'll be monumental," Todd told CBC Sports. "I think there are a lot of women who could potentially play the sport of wheelchair rugby, but perhaps don't necessarily see themselves represented as often and perhaps view it as more of a male sport, and that there are less opportunities for participation."
Wheelchair rugby is a sport for athletes with a mobility-related disability in at least three limbs. It is played on a hardwood court, combining elements of handball, rugby and basketball.
Players are broken down into one of seven point classes (0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, or 3.5) depending on their functional ability. Higher classes are assigned to players with higher functional levels, while lower classifications are assigned to players with less functional ability.
To ensure teams have a balanced mix of athletes with different functional levels, The combined classification value of an on-court lineup (four players) cannot exceed eight points.
The Canadian women's roster features players from B.C., Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, with Mélanie Labelle and Erika Schmutz leading the way as players with national team experience.
Labelle is excited for the team's debut and the potential to introduce more women into the sport she loves.
"With my level of disability, sometimes it can look tough to start something or to imagine that you can play sports or that level of sports," Labelle told CBC Sports. "But when you get in the chair and you see that this sport is inclusive for your type of disability, it just clicks and you just want more."
WATCH | Mélaine Labelle aims to inspire young disabled athletes:
Schmutz back for another historic moment
Schmutz is no stranger to making wheelchair rugby history, as she became the first woman to ever score a try at the Paralympics in 2008.
The 50-year-old from Windsor, Ont., is returning to compete for Canada for the first time since retiring from the national program in 2012.
"This opportunity to send an all-female team to represent Canada is priceless. The pride of representing your country, the experience gained playing internationally and the confidence you will get as you play competitive games, will only benefit our current and next generation of female athletes," Schmutz said in a release.
Labelle and Kristen Cameron are the only women currently with Canada's national program, but Cameron will be missing the Women's Cup due to health issues.
Labelle, a 37-year-old from St-Hubert, Que., has been with the program since 2019, the same year she helped Canada win silver at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
She is excited for the women's team to show what it can do against tough competition, saying the players are ready to compete at a high level and not just participate.
"It's people that want to compete. They have that grit. They respect the sport and they want to be respected. I'm so proud of that group," Labelle said.
"What the girls all say about this tournament is how important it is for them to compete and be seen as full athletes."
The historic Canadian team also features an all-women's staff.
'It's about time'
Todd has been involved as a wheelchair rugby coach for the past five years, at both the local and provincial level. She has always dreamed of seeing a Canadian women's team.
"I think it's often that women are not always viewed as just as athletically capable as men, especially in a coed sport," Todd said. "I think women having the opportunity to be leaders and show just how athletically capable they are, and how dedicated and fierce and how strong of a competitor they are, I'd like to say it's about time."
The team had a chance to build chemistry at an exhibition tournament in Calgary last week, which featured the first-ever Canadian women's wheelchair rugby training camp.
The Canadian roster was split into two squads for the Ignite tournament, where they played against male players on club teams from Edmonton, B.C., and Calgary.
One of the women's teams ultimately came out on top in the final game against the Edmonton Steel Wheels, capping a solid start to their new journey.
"I think the team is really excited to continue working together and to just show that we can execute in Paris and we will execute in Paris, and then just see where we can get in the future," Todd said.
"I'm really excited to have all the work come to fruition and really showcase Canada's position in women's wheelchair rugby."
Labelle was unable to be with the team in Calgary, as she was competing in a tournament with the national development team — chasing her ultimate goal of reaching the 2024 Paris Paralympics. But she can't wait to help write the new chapter with the women's team and watch her teammates grow as players on the international stage.
"I'm stoked to see everybody develop," Labelle said.
"The difference in their play style and the growth and the confidence that they're going to gain from that, I just can't wait to watch it happen. It's going to be amazing."
While the Women's Cup is the only tournament currently on the horizon for the women's team, it has the potential to create momentum and lead to other opportunities. It is building up to be the biggest edition yet, taking place the day after International Women's Day celebrations on March 8.
Todd hopes the Women's Cup is just the beginning for Canada's women's program.
"I think there's so much potential for women's growth in so many capacities across wheelchair rugby, from athletes to coaches and referees. It's super exciting to see a completely women's structure and system for our Canadian team," Todd said.
"It's incredible being a part of this movement."
Wheelchair Rugby Canada's investment in the women's game for the Paris tournament can spark further growth, but continued support will be needed to ensure the team becomes a mainstay moving forward.
"I would love to see our teams stick together and continue having these opportunities. I think it's going to take the support of our governing body and supporters across the country to pushing our momentum," Todd said.
Canada will open its tournament against Great Britain on March 9 at 10 a.m. ET. The tournament will be live streamed on Wheelchair Rugby France's YouTube channel.
Brianna Hennessy (3.5)
Kaley Dugger (3.5)
Julia Hanes (3.0)
Jessica Kruger (2.5)
Sophie Forest (2.0)
Erika Schmutz (1.5)
Kasey Aiello (1.5)
Tiana Hesmert (1.5)
Melanie Labelle (1.0)
Ashley Munro (1.0)