It felt like nearly a lifetime of school, but Canadian wheelchair basketball star Nik Goncin is ready for the road ahead — both on and off the court.
After 12 years of juggling his Paralympic career and studies, the 29-year-old Regina native wrapped up his prosthetics and orthotics program at George Brown College in May, just in time to focus his attention on challenging for a medal in Tokyo.
"I'm done. Hopefully forever. Fingers crossed. I've been in school since 2009," laughed Goncin, during a break from centralization camp at the Toronto Pan Am Centre prior to leaving for Japan.
Already armed with a kinesiology degree from the University of Illinois and a Masters in Exercise Physiology from Ontario Institute of Technology, Goncin was searching for something that would fulfill him if he were to do it for the rest of his life.
"I sat down talking to my wife [Annie], thinking about what I wanted to do and orthotics/prosthetics came up," Goncin said. "And it got me thinking about Andy, my prosthetist when I first lost my leg."
Goncin was 15 when he lost his left leg to osteosarcoma.
"When you lose your leg, your body image changes totally, self-confidence, everything. I won't get into it, but it was a big change in my life."
Andy d'Entremont, his prosthetist, was an amputee himself. When Goncin met him, d'Entremont was married, had kids, drove a motorcycle, had a house. He was totally independent. And that clicked for Goncin.
"I was like 'oh, that's wicked' maybe I could do that. I'm not totally lost."
He got his leg fitted and d'Entremont helped him work on his biomechanics of walking. It was important for Goncin to walk without a limp so no one could tell.
"I didn't really realize how big an impact Andy had on my life until later on." Goncin said.
"If I could be what Andy was to me to anybody, for one person in my lifetime, that would be enough to feel like I had an impact. He completely changed my outlook on life, post-cancer."
2nd Paralympic experience
With life in sync professionally, he's turned his focus on preparing for his second Paralympic experience, as difficult as it is this time around.
"This is completely different," said Goncin, who was a rookie on the 11th-place men's team in 2016.
"Mentally, anything you do at the high-performance level you try to get rid of things you can't control, those stressors, but with what's going on with COVID it's like every single day something goes wrong.
"It's been an experience to adapt to things, changes in schedule — cancellations — vaccines, all of these things."
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Since joining the senior national program in 2013, Goncin has grown into his role within the team's leadership group, taking lessons from the veteran core.
"Everybody has great qualities that they bring," he said. "As an example, when it comes to administrative stuff, being organized, Bo Hedges is No. 1. Always on time, always remembers everything. I definitely get a little bit from him, being around him, [and observing] how he runs his life.
"And Pat Anderson, he leads by example. My goal is to be well-rounded, a little bit of everything. I'm excited to see what it's going to be like in the next few years."
'Our goal is simple'
Goncin's leadership shines when talking about the team's goal for Tokyo. While the team intends to challenge for a medal, the No. 1 goal is to play to its potential.
"High-performance sport and the world in general holds too much value and importance on outcomes rather than the process," he said. "If our process is deliberate, we trust one another and play as a team, success will follow.
"Our goal is simple: To play our hearts out, play for each other, our country and try to do so for eight games straight. If we can do that, we will be competing for a medal."
After Tokyo, Goncin, his wife Annie and their 70-pound border-collie lab, Toby, will make the move to Calgary where they recently bought their first home. Goncin will work at the orthotics plant where he did a placement back in March.
"It's super exciting," he said. "We're really looking forward to the next chapter."